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A Korean Doctor Zhivago

Boris Pasternak, the writer of the powerful romantic novel set against the background of the Russian Civil War, made his main character a man in a love triangle. One might say suitably, as a woman, Theresa Lee makes her main character in the remarkable new novel, The Painted Skirt, a woman with a love interest in two men. The historical scope of her novel is greater than Pasternak’s, covering Korea from the waning years of peace under the Japanese occupation, through World War II and the Korean War.

Anyone who has read her vivid memoir, The Divided Land: A Tale of Survival in War-Torn Korea, published in 2005, will know that much of what she writes reflects her direct experience. They will also know from having read the earlier book that she writes with a rare intensity and emotion. She has also demonstrated that, like James Michener, she has mastered the new trick of writing fiction quite late in life. Though appropriately larger than life, particularly her main character, a classical pianist, Lee Inju, the people in her story are very real, brought to life by dialogue that you can almost hear as you read it.

It’s very hard to imagine that anyone else alive today could have penned the story that Lee has written. She came of age in the waning days of Japanese occupation of Korea. It was, in effect, the water in which she swam; she knew no other world. Large numbers of Japanese had colonized the peninsula, superimposing their own ruling class over the existing ruling class, of which Lee was, at least tangentially, a part. People with ambition and the means to do so, went to Japan, most likely to Tokyo, for higher education. That’s what Theresa’s main character, Lee Inju, does, with the help of her kind Japanese teacher and benefactor, a Mrs. Ikeda, in order to improve the skills she has learned on Mrs. Ikeda’s piano, her family having been unable to afford one of their own.

Korea at the time was a very male and elder-dominated Confucian society in which almost all marriages were arranged by the family, often with the help of matchmakers. Almost all of those from Korea pursuing higher education in Tokyo would have been young men. The seeds for dramatic conflict were thereby sown for Inju.

In her recounting of the ill-fated story of Inju and her first suitor, Seo Yoon, Theresa gives us a window into the negative side of the age-old arranged-marriage system of East Asia in much the same way that Pasternak captures the corruption and excesses of tsarist Russia that led up to the revolution in that country. We are also given a feel for the roots of the persistently authoritarian nature of the governments of the region. Although, it must be said that with about half of all marriages in the United States ending in divorce and with single-parent households a growing problem throughout the Western world, it would appear that the manner in which we go about pairing up for the purpose of perpetuating the species, among other things, continues to be a work in progress everywhere and that no one has yet hit upon the ideal system for it.

Theresa has chosen well in making her heroine a classical pianist. Hardly any country in the world has taken to Western classical music as has South Korea. And, right up there with golf, classical music performance has provided a venue for Korean women to excel. As Theresa Lee describes her playing and her beauty, one can imagine an ideal version of say, Son Yeol Eum or Joyce Yang. I can also attest to the fact that it is not just a recent phenomenon. It was just 14 years after the end of the Korean war and the country was still desperately poor when I was there as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. I recall as I walked through a residential neighborhood in Inchon one weekend hearing the strains of Beethoven’s Für Elise, being played to perfection on a piano coming out of a house only a few feet away from me. It was really quite an unforgettable experience. Later I would hear it played on the rather tinny sounding PA speaker of the Seoul-Inchon train station. The speakers were state of the art, though, in the two small music halls in Seoul I patronized, where one could sit and listen to classical music for the price of a cup of tea or coffee, with what was being played written on a chalk board at the front of the room. At one of them, I recall hearing a great rendition of Mozart’s Alla Turca, in a performance of which Son Yeol Eum demonstrates her talent in the link I have chosen above.

One could also see excellent live performances at the grand old National Theater, built during the period of the Japanese occupation, right in the heart of Myeongdong, the entertainment center of Seoul, similar to the Ginza in Tokyo.

Mention of that edifice, an essentially Japanese contribution to Korean culture brings us to a unique aspect of Theresa’s novel as Korean literature and popular culture goes. Generally, all we hear about the Japanese occupation, particularly in the later years, are horror stories such as the forced labor on Sakhalin Island, Hashima Island, and other unpleasant Japanese locales, and, of course, the comfort women. These were the young women from Korea and other Japanese-occupied countries forced to work in Japanese military brothels during the war. The Japan of The Painted Skirt is depicted in a much more nuanced fashion than what Korean audiences and, in fact, world audiences have generally been exposed to since the middle of the 1930s.

Lee Inju’s second love interest, and the dominant male character in the book, Min Jaiho, is a journalist for the leading newspaper in Seoul at the time she met him, which, as the author points out, would have also made it Korea’s leading Japanese propaganda organ. Nevertheless, he remains unsoiled by the association. From this writer’s perspective, and from a purely literary standpoint, in terms of verisimilitude, he is everything that Lee Inju is not. He is, and could only be, a completely fictitious character, a member of the “Null Set,” as I have described it in the United States these days:

Decent, intelligent, and a journalist,
You know what’s occurred to me?
In what has become of America,
It’s impossible to be all three.

How much more impossible would it have been for there to have been such a journalist under the Japanese in Korea in the late 1930s and during the war and then under the Syngman Rhee government! And yet, the reader, particularly, I can imagine, the female reader, wants so badly to believe that there are such ideal men in the world, and even in that profession, that the character works.

He brings to mind the romantic lead in the Korean TV drama, Winter Sonata, which was wildly popular in Japan and in much of Asia. Numerous Japanese women, it is said, got it in their heads that this super sensitive, caring and romantic fellow played by the actor Bae Yong-joon was typical of Korean men, in contrast to the dull male chauvinists with whom they were stuck in Japan, and they went off to Korea in generally futile search of such ideal creatures. Bae was so popular in Japan at one point that he was paid a million dollars just to spend a week in one of its hotels.

As a journalist, reporter Min, as he is referred to after the character’s first introduction, is Johnny-on-the-spot for a number of historical events, from the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in July of 1937 that began Japan’s war with China to the Nanjing Massacre at the end of that year and later at General Douglas MacArthur’s famous successful Inchon Landing in September of 1950.

It really wasn’t necessary to bring the Nanjing Massacre into the story. One suspects that it might have been done by the author Lee to protect herself from her countrymen who might accuse her of being too soft on the Japanese. As it turns out, we hadn’t seen the last of Mrs. Ikeda after she had laid the cornerstone for what could have been a successful music career for Inju. This Japanese lady is just about the most decent, unselfish, and admirable person in the book.

If a Korean romance that has nothing at all to do with Japan can be as popular in the latter country as Winter Sonata was, one must wonder about the potential of a video version of The Painted Skirt in that country. Such a film drama might also go some small way toward suturing the open wound that continues to exist between the two countries.

David Martin

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