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Choosing between life and art

Sept. 23, 2011 - 19:28 By
A struggling writer and his wife move into a house in Gangnam in southern Seoul after 13 years of living in a smaller property elsewhere. Throughout the years the two managed to live in peace, though he never managed to write anything successful enough to make a living solely from writing.

What author So Young-en presents in her 1984 novella “A Walk in the Mountains” is a portrait of a struggling individual whose artistic aspirations are challenged by harsh reality and the market economy. It also deftly depicts the nature of human desire for material security, which is conflicted with one’s pursuit of professional goals and who they ultimately want to be.

The book begins as the couple moves into the new place and are faced with their new reality. Though the new house is bigger than the one they used to live in, its utility bills are much more expensive. The wife, who was “ready to face poverty” when she agreed to marry the author, yet always wanted to own a house at the same time, is left with mixed feelings.

Then the husband is notified by the newspaper that he has been writing for that it no longer has space to publish his works as more ads fill up the pages. After his contract ends with the newspaper, the writer withdraws from writing and begins to act inexplicably.

He first stops talking to his long-time writer friends, and often leaves his wife alone in the house. The wife, who has always been proud that she is married to an artist ― regardless of how successful he is ― tries to remain calm while hoping that he will start writing again soon.

Yet the former writer says he needs to find a new purpose to release the “unused” energy inside him. He begins to hang out with shaman, and leaves for a mountain range saying he will stay there indefinitely.

In the book, the writer’s outlet to publish his works ― or, in his words, “release his energy” ― is taken away for more advertisements, not for the literary works of others. His strange behavior after losing his artistic outlet includes helping an impoverished teenager whom he has never met before, and purposely buying broken eggs from a poverty-stricken peddler in the hope of helping her.
The fact that he becomes spiritual and leaves for a mountain range ― where he can be less affected by the market economy ― is also a calculated literary move, symbolizing the alternative space for the has-been writer to be the person he really wants to be.

Yet the novella presents an arguably sad and disillusioning ending, which in fact speaks to present-day Korean society and the case of Choi Go-eun. Choi, a young aspiring screenwriter, was found dead in her studio in Anyang, Geonggi Province, after suffering from financial destitution and hyperthyroidism in January. She apparently had put a handwritten note on the door of her studio, asking her landlords for leftover rice and kimchi prior to her death.

Author Kim Sa-gwa, who had attended classes with Choi at Korea National University of Arts, put a question online after her former classmate’s death: “Why do we have to choose between life and art?”

So’s 1984 novel does not provide an answer, yet certainly explains the life condition of such artists who have been and are struggling.

Born in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, author So studied English literature at Konkuk University. She made her literary debut in 1968, and has written some of the most significant pieces in modern Korean literature, including “The Distant Other” (1983) and “Gold Feathers” (1985). Her works are considered to be the pioneer of Korean modern realism, often dealing with deeply disillusioning experiences of contemporary individuals who are often helplessly controlled by others or society as a whole. She won the Yi Sang Literary Prize for her 1983 novella “The Distant Other” in the same year. 

(A Walk in the Mountains, By So Young-en (Hollym))