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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Reverse Side of Life

Lee Seung-U

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To purchase The Reverse Side of Life

Title: The Reverse Side of Life
Author: Lee Seung-U
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 208 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Reverse Side of Life - US
The Reverse Side of Life - UK
The Reverse Side of Life - Canada
L'Envers de la vie - France
Die Rückseite des Lebens - Deutschland
La otra cara de la vida - España
  • Translated by Yoo-jung Kong

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid writing, decent approach

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Reverse Side of Life is presented as a sort of author-biography. The narrator has been hired to profile Bak Bugil for an 'Author Focus' series. He's not very enthusiastic about the undertaking: he's only read a few of Bak's novels, and thinks he's not really the right person for the job. But he lets himself be pressured into it.
       Bak isn't a bestselling author, but he has a solid reputation, having: "secured a unique place for himself within the field of Korean literature trough his consistent individuality". He's been fairly productive, too, having published ten novels, seven short-story collections, and three collections of essays over the course of fifteen years.
       The narrator tries to organise the available material, and looks over Bak's more biographical works, and then meets the author himself. The Reverse Side of Life isn't the finished book, but rather describes the narrator putting Bak's life and writing in some sort of order -- and wondering aloud how best to go about it. There are extensive quotes from Bak's writing, and the centrepiece of the novel is Bak's own first (never previously published) novella, Fruits of the Earth, a fifty-page long autobiographical piece. It is readily integrated into the book proper because the narrator relies so much on Bak's own words anyway.
       The novel focusses on Bak's formative years. A final four-page section, 'To Complete the Biographical History', summarises Bak's life from 1972 (when he was 21) to 1977, and there is practically nothing about the author's life once he truly established himself as an author (beyond the references to the works from that period which are quoted). It is what made Bak the writer he became that is of interest to the narrator -- and it is certainly colourful material.
       Bak grew up in a very poor and remote town:

Up to the time he left his home town at the age of fourteen there were no buses in that area and of course no electricity either.
       Bak's family circumstances were particularly difficult: his father -- supposedly brilliant -- was absent, and eventually his mother disappears as well, their difficult relationship only eventually explained. Bak is raised by his uncle, but the mystery around his parents obviously always weighs heavily on him. He never really has close family, and he flees for Seoul pretty much as soon as he can (almost literally burning his bridges behind him). Still only fifteen, he struggles to get by, and eventually is helped by his family -- but again, it's not his mother who takes him in: he is kept at a distance, always left more or less to himself.
       Reading is always an escape and refuge, though his reading is indiscriminate:
The comic books of Chu Dongseong, The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, Human Management, a popular Japanese novel peppered with sex and intrigue or a dictionary of media jargon published by a newspaper company were all one and the same to me. For a while everything was like this. No work was more serious than another, and more interesting works were not categorized separately.
       Religion -- or its trappings -- seems to figure prominently in Bak's life, and he is frequently helped by or in the company of preachers and pastors. Eventually he attends a seminary, yet religion appears to be almost incidental, perhaps an integral part of his life but ingrained in such a way that it hardly manifests itself in his thought or writing: there's little god-talk, the spirituality left at a remove.
       The Reverse Side of Life is an attempt to connect writing and writer (further complicated by the fact that Bak is evidently a stand-in figure for author Lee Seung-U ...). The narrator tries to get to the root of the man through his writing -- raising those familiar questions about 'the novel' and about the line between fact and fiction. He argues:
Even if it is based on the truth, what the novelist writes is, in the end, a novel. Completely distilled truth does not exist.
       And, of course, the reader is well aware that The Reverse Side of Life itself is a novel, a parallel to but emphatically not that 'Author Focus' volume the narrator means to write.
       The narrator tries to explain the quandary:
If there is no life, there is no novel. Consequently, what we have to discover in the novel is the author's private voice hidden inside the fragments, not a restoration of the truth through fitting the fragments together.
       Such authorial games can be awkward, but Lee Seung-U handles them quite well. For one, he writes well, and the Bak-episodes and Bak's personal issues are quite compellingly presented. While much -- especially the religious backdrop -- remains a bit too veiled (or at least difficult to fathom), The Reverse Side of Life is also of considerable interest for its Korean perspective and insights, Bak's environment and possibilities often distinctly 'foreign' ones yet treated here not as exotic but simply matter-of-factly.
       The creative presentation and interesting character make for a good and interesting read. Worth a look.

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The Reverse Side of Life: Reviews: Other books by Lee Seung-U under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       Korean author Lee Seung-U (이승우) was born in 1959.

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