Overall: . The novellas are discussed individually below.
(1) Reflections on a Mask, first published 1960
By no means an easy book.
The subject is a writer who has fought in the Korean war and finds it difficult to adjust back into daily life thereafter. He toys with writing a script for a ballet company; he has an unsatisfactory relationship with an artist, whose work he persistently destroys. Almost to find escape from his daily life he visits a strange American psychiatric institute where mysterious men in a side room listen to him narrating his dreams: his dreams which involve him adopting the persona of an Indian prince seeking the perfect face mask. His dream fantasy is a weird and sinister story with an abrupt and unsatisfactory resolution, just as his real life is curiously disengaged. Both involve trying to escape from, or perfect, an unsatisfactory outward reality — the mask. But through no fault of the translator this book is heavy going. Here’s a sample of the disjointed musings of the protagonist:
Simple and honest people will be saved.
A law for local self-government is a more necessary piece of legislation for spiritual life.
The reason why geniuses commit suicide is that even on the day after they had completed their masterpieces, the sun still rose in the east.
In the field of optics there is one kind of white.
In the mind there are two kinds of white.
There is an original white and there is a white that has been absorbed.
And so on.
This is the sort of book which possibly repays further study and discussion. But I didn’t know what to make of it, reading it on my own.
(2) Christmas Carol
If Reflections on a Mask is difficult, Christmas Carol is completely baffling. Split into five segments, nothing much happens. The first three sections are set in a well-to-do family’s house in the mid 1960s, and are mainly made up of dialogue between father and son. I can only assume that the translation is a poor one, because the father seems to take offence at almost everything the son says for no apparent reason. The dialogue is fractious, fragmented, full of questions with no answers. If this is a typical conversation between a Korean father and son, it’s no wonder that Prince Sado went mad.
What the fourth section is about is anyone’s guess. It’s not even certain that the episode involves anyone from the first three segments. It’s set in a European university town, but beyond that, who knows? There’s nothing to engage the attention and I found myself skim-reading this part. Maybe I missed something crucial, but I’m not going to hurry back.
The final movement of the mysterious quintet returns us to Seoul and our familiar dysfunctional family. The son has pains under his armpits and finds he’s sprouting wings. Some deep allegory is going on here, but it’s not clear what.
If anyone can help me out as to what on earth these two novellas are about do please leave a comment below. Meanwhile, casual readers should steer well clear.