Welcome to Footloose & Fanciful, an occasional series of posts where we talk about books, films or other art forms that have inspired us to travel to new places or appraise familiar places with fresh eyes.
I’m probably not the best person to kick off this series. As much as I adore fiction, I’m not one to travel on a whim, because of something I read in a book. Especially not these days, when my expat years, spent in England and Japan, are behind me and I have to take time off from work. Typically, I arrive at my destination and collapse in a heap of exhaustion. It’s not until I’ve had a good rest that I am able to take in my surroundings. I peer out the window and say: “Really, I’m in xxx?!”
At that point I go to the other extreme, manically trying to find out as much as possible about where I’ve landed, visiting bookstores with an English-language section to stock up on translated novels, expat memoirs, the lot…
The second time I went to Seoul, South Korea, though, was different, and I’ll make that the subject of today’s post. That trip marked a rare time when a book had piqued my interest in a country to the point of influencing what I wanted to do and see and talk about during my stay.
Finding the soul of Seoul
I said my second visit to Seoul. The first had occurred a few years before. It followed the typical pattern. I arrived tired and unprepared, although on that occasion, I got an immediate lesson in the local culture.
Just as my husband and I were landing in Incheon International Airport, the news was breaking that Dr. Hwang Woo Suk—a veterinary researcher who had achieved world fame by cloning an Afghan hound named Snuppy—had falsified his latest results to make it look as though he’d made advances in human cloning.
“It’s a very Korean story,” some Korean friends of my husband’s informed us. I wasn’t sure what they meant, but little by little, I pieced it together. The Korean government, desperate to project a modern, high-tech face to the world, had turned Dr. Hwang into a national hero. He appeared in many of their promotional campaigns. The post office sold stamps to commemorate his research, and Dr and Mrs Hwang enjoyed a decade of first-class tickets on Korea Air, because of his status as “national treasure.”
Interestingly, our Korean friends were reluctant to condemn him outright. He’d been under a phenomenal amount of pressure to produce results and bring his country greater glory. If you were under that much pressure, you’d probably be tempted to skip a few rounds of clinical trials, too, they seemed to be saying.
I had to think about that for a while. Already, I was inclined to feel sorry for the Koreans because I knew how they’d suffered under Japanese rule. They are the Central Europeans of Asia, if you will. Just as the Hungarians, Poles and Czechs have had to put up with Germany and Russia, the Koreans, due to being sandwiched between China and Japan, have had to put up with incursions from both.
Gradually, I came round to the Korean point of view. My thought process went something like this:
Okay, the Koreans have been victims of some bad geography. But then why do they make things so much worse for themselves by setting such impossibly high standards? What Dr. Hwang did was wrong, a violation of ethical standards in medical research. But, okay, if I can feel sorry for all the Korean schoolchildren cramming like crazy for exams, I guess I can spare a bit of sympathy for Snuppy’s creator…
After arriving home from that trip, I was eager to read more about the country (I hadn’t found much in translation in Seoul’s bookstores).
That was when I happened upon the novel The Red Queen, by Margaret Drabble.
Seeing Korea in shades of red
A novel on Korean history by one of the writers I’d most admired when living in the UK: what could be a more perfect bridge between the two parts of my expat life?
The Red Queen of the book’s title refers to Lady Hyegyong, a Korean woman who lived in the 18th and early 19th centuries. She was plucked from obscurity to marry the Crown Prince of Korea, Sado, who turned out to be…a HOMICIDAL MANIAC, I kid you not.
The reason we know all of this is that Lady Hyegyong left behind a diary, and Part 1 of the novel is Drabble’s version of that document, which she based on JaHyun Kim Haboush’s translation of The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea.
In Part 1, the Crown Princess tells us about what it was like to live with a husband and in a court where daily, several dead bodies would be carried out of the palace (whenever Sado felt agitated or depressed, he would seek relief by murdering his servants) or reports would arrive of another court lady being raped. After he murders his concubine, he starts harassing his own sister, too.
At about this point, I concluded that the only thing worse than discovering you’re married to psychopath would be to find out you’re confined with him in a palace, from which there’s no escape. Terror within a claustrophobic setting must be the worst kind there is!
The story has a further twist. The Crown Prince’s father, King Yongjo, turns out to have been deeply Confucian. He is the kind of Korean parent who sets impossibly high standards for his son, which—it is hinted in the Crown Princess’s diaries—may be part of what triggers the son’s madness.
In the end, the cruel father proves more than the psycho son’s match. On a hot day in July 1762, he summons Sado and orders him to get into a heavy wooden chest, ordinarily used for storing rice or grain. The lid is shut and locked, and Sado is left to starve. It takes eight days.
The Crown Princess is traumatized all over again at witnessing her father-in-law execute her husband in such a cruel manner.
In part 2 of the book, an Oxford academic travels to Seoul with the Crown Princess’s diary in hand (which has been sent to her anonymously via Amazon.com) and finds parallels between her own life and hers. Professor Halliwell feels that the Princess “has entered her, like an alien creature in a science-fiction movie.” She becomes possessed by her—just as I was by the end of the book, just as I’m sure Drabble was, which was what inspired her to create (in her words) this “transcultural tragi-comedy.”
More questions than answers
I went back to Korea for a second time not long after reading the novel, accompanying my husband on some work he had there. So moved had I been by Drabble’s book that I was determined to find a way to pay tribute to the Red Queen, so called because of all the blood that flowed during her husband’s reign.
But here’s the strange thing. All of my attempts to find out about Lady Hyegyong came to naught. My Korean friends said I needed special permission to visit Changgyeong Palace, where this tragic series of events took place. They did not seem to want to engage in a conversation about this period of their history.
I left Korea with more questions than answers: Do Koreans repress this part of their past, and if so, what does that tell us about them? Is my previous view of them as helpless victims all wrong? Did other countries walk in and take over because Korea had weakened itself through its impossibly high Confucian ideals, which had led to total anarchy by the end of the 18th century?
But the weirdest thing is, I wasn’t that surprised by the Korean reaction. While the Western part of me applauds Drabble for resurrecting Lady Hyegyeong as feminist hero, one who lived long enough to write her tale (the existence of her memoirs, incidentally, served to refute later attempts to restore Sado to a position of honor in Korean history books), the Asian part thinks that poor Lady Hyegyeong must feel displaced in Drabble’s novel. Relationships are, after all, a central theme to Confucianism. The husband is the head of the household and the wife is obedient to him, full stop.
This inner dilemma of mine, along with the spirit of Lady Hyegyeong, which Drabble portrays so vividly in her novel, still haunts me to this day…
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Readers, have you ever read a book that has colored your impressions of a place in weird ways? Also, if you would like to contribute to this new series—perhaps an uplifting tale of being inspired by a book set in the idyllic Tuscan countryside would be in order after this rather macabre story?—please don’t hesitate to get in touch: email@example.com.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
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