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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Poet

Yi Mun-yol

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To purchase The Poet

Title: The Poet
Author: Yi Mun-yol
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 1995)
Length: 208 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Poet - US
The Poet - UK
The Poet - Canada
Le Poète - France
  • Korean title: 시인
  • Translated by Chong-wha Chung and "Brother Anthony of Taizé"
  • With an Introduction by the Translators, and an Author's Note
  • The Poet appears to currently be out of print

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely done portrait of 19th century Korean poet -- with some modern touches

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 27/10/1995 Keith Howard
The Washington Post . 16/6/1996 James Polk
World Lit. Today . Summer/1993 Bettina L. Knapp

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Poet is a uniquely Korean work with many of the characteristic features of the Korean novel. It regularly repeats key sentences (a device kept by the translators), and it indulges in lengthy philosophical digressions, including many diatribes on the nature of poetry itself. (...) The novel mixes everything together seamlessly." - Keith Howard, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Poet is a novel about an historic figure -- Korean poet Kim Pyong-yon (1807-1863), popularly know as Kim Sakkat, after the hat he wore. Well known in his native Korea, his biography is also an interesting and poignant one. His grandfather, Kim Ik-sun, was a traitor, executed for his betrayal. Kim Ik-sun's descendants were also tarred by his crime, and the lingering shadow of his disloyal acts left Kim Pyong-yon an outcast.
       The story is of particular significance to author Yi Mun-yol, whose own communist father was seen as a traitor in South Korea, having defected to the North in 1951. The family that was left behind in the South was similarly tainted by this betrayal.
       Yi Mun-yol's novel is a biographical one, relating the poet's life. Kim Pyong-yon's poems form the basis of some of the novel, as do the well-known facts about much of his life. Yi Mun-yol is not concerned with historical veracity; rather he molds the story to his purposes, suggesting what might have happened on certain occasions, offering alternate explanations. Yi Mun-yol writes with the historical record in mind -- he makes mention of what the generally accepted version is, and he warns readers when he is diverging from it. He effectively weaves fact, poetry, and invention into his tale.
       The tale is an interesting one, as Kim Pyong-yon tries at first to regain the position due someone of his background through hard study and sitting for the state examinations, but this proves impossible in a country that has become corrupt to the core. Yi Mun-yol describes a country that is filled with dishonour and cheating, impoverished by its own misguided values. Instead of embracing a man of Kim Pyong-yon's talents, this society makes a normal life practically impossible for him, rejecting his efforts to be a responsible citizen. Priorities are completely skewed, with teaching repeatedly portrayed as a lowly profession, and learning no longer properly respected.
       His grandfather's crime haunts Kim Pyong-yon more than he expected Eventually, Kim Pyong-yon realizes that the avenues to the life he hoped to reclaim are closed to him, and he devotes himself completely to poetry. He travels far and becomes a well-known figure, coming into contact with a wide range of people from Korean society.
       Yi Mun-yol's novel gives a good, broad picture of 19th century Korea, while also bringing in issues relating to contemporary Korea (North and South). His style is fluid and reads well, and he presents the story well.
       Generally solid and successful.

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The Poet: Reviews: Other books by Yi Mun-yol under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       (South) Korean author Yi Mun Yol (이문열, Yi Munyol, Yi Mun-yol) was born in 1948. He has won numerous literary prizes, and his work has been translated into several foreign languages.

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