Novelist Sung Seok-je releases a new book "Only One Romance" published by Human & Books. / Korea Times file
Violence, human desire mixed with love
"Only One Romance" written by Sung Seokje (Human & Books; 300 pp., 12,500 won)
By Chung Ah-young
Sung Seok-je, known as one of the most skillful raconteur of our time, has always brought the characters living on the margins of society such as thugs, villains, vagabonds and criminals into the literary limelight. His trademark narrative prowess lies in humor and wit which brings serious situations and characters into familiar tales.
The peripheral characters in his previous works are also embodied in his new novel "Only One Romance" (Human & Books; 300 pp., 12,500 won).
The book is Sung's first full-scale romance piece through his entire literary career since his debut in 1986. But the novel is also a narrative that pierces through modern Korean history from the 1960s to 2020, touching upon violence, human desires and salvation.
The story is told around a man who loves a woman throughout his entire life in the first-person narrative.
Set in a fishing village in 2020, the story goes back and forth from the past to the present. Lee Se-gil is captivated by Park Min-hyun, a daughter of a whale fisherman, at an entrance ceremony of an elementary school. His affection toward Min-hyun is rather painful because of the abuse she is suffering under the hands of her father.
Se-gil has unconditional love for her and he coincidentally witnesses one of such gruesome acts of violence against her. In a fit of rage, Min-hyun's father threw a sharp fishing spear at her, piercing her thigh in the process.
The painful incident caused them to be drawn together even closer and knit together in love later. Min-hyun's emotional and physical scars have left her alienated even among her schoolmates but Se-gil remains relentless in his love for her.
Min-hyun's father is a notorious, savage-like, undaunted fisherman who fights against the power of nature to catch whales. Her mother worked as a maid at a Japanese house in the town, formed at the peak season of fishing on the East Sea in 1920s during the Japanese colonial rule.
Her life is as miserable as her mother who ran away in the middle of a fight with her husband. Min-hyun grows into a beautiful, smart and attractive seductress while utilizing Se-gil's love and hurting him.
But his one-sided, unconditional and heart-breaking love toward Min-hyun never changes from childhood to middle-age.
Not only the on-and-off relation between the two but also other incidents taking place in modern history such as the industrialization process in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province in the 1960s, the democratic movements in the 1980s and the financial crisis in 1997 are told through the eyes of the male protagonist.
But the story is centered on the female victim of violence, yet able to surmount all the tragic episodes of her life. For Se-gil, Min-hyun has an extraordinary aura but needs a shelter for comfort. The author originally wanted to write from a woman's perspective but he gave up because he has never done this before. So he created the male protagonist who obsessively loves and follows the woman.
The depiction of catching a whale on the wild sea by Min-hyun's father takes a large portion of the story, revealing the grueling process of hunting and slaughtering a whale coupled with the human desire to conquer nature and life. Se-gil is too preoccupied with salvaging her from her entanglement of misery so much that he accepts that Min-hyun treats him as a mere sex partner.
The author grapples with the repeated display of violence throughout the story. Sung completed his draft within two months. "I had the feeling of being possessed while I was writing the novel. I wrote it everywhere. ... The sentences and words are generating back to back from my brain. I even couldn't handle it. I felt as if I wrote the novel under the guidance of a cosmetic and inspiring power rather than my will," the author writes in his epilogue.
In his unique narrative style, Sung's literary energy is apparent in every sentence in which the characters grow from childhood to adulthood. The story is simple but mixed with humor, pathos and constant textual pleasure.