Some time ago I watched Park Chong-wan’s 1995 historical mystery movie Eternal Empire on DVD, having purchased it on the strength of its inclusion in Darcy Paquet’s list of top films from the 1990s. I must have been tired when I watched it: I simply have no recollection of what I thought of it, though I note that I penned a very short review.
No such chance with Yi In-hwa’s 1993 novel on which the film was based. It grips from the start. And in a world where we are enjoying a surge of translations of exciting recent thrillers by the likes of Kim Unsu and Jeong You-Jeong, this is a novel which is their equal in terms of suspense and plot line, and thoroughly surpasses them in terms sophistication and cerebral interest.
Set in the final months of the reign reign of King Jeongjo (r 1776 – 1800), the novel starts with an unexpected death of a civil servant in the royal library. The novel’s central character, Yi In-mong, is himself a bright and promising young official working in the royal library and is first on the scene. A death of an official on palace premises is bound to bring consequences for the deceased’s family and fellow-officials: he should have had the decency to die elsewhere so as not to bring bad luck to the royal household, and those closest to him should have made sure of this. But if the death is not of natural causes then that has other implications. In-mong calls on the help of a respected friend to help investigate the matter and contain the potential fallout.
Step forward Dasan Jeong Yak-yong, famous progressive scholar from the south of the country, in high regard with the king, but ideologically somewhat suspect because of the connection of some of his family members with the Catholic faith. In-mong too has had to divorce his wife because she is a devout follower of the new religion.
It soon becomes apparent that the death is a cunningly-concealed murder. Worse, the dead scholar was working on a rare manuscript which mysteriously disappeared soon after the discovery of the body.
The backdrop to the mysterious turn of events is the death of Crown Prince Sado nearly 40 years earlier. Why did his father King Yeongjo have him put to death? Had Sado got too involved in politics and been somehow framed by his political enemies? Or was it simply, as suggested by the memoirs of his widow Lady Hyegyong, because he was mentally unstable to the extent that he was a danger to others and a liability to the royal family?
What if King Yeongjo himself, famous for his policy of impartiality, had secretly written what he thought about Sado’s death? If such a document came to light, it could have an explosive impact on the politics and ideas at the start of the new century, by providing a justification for a new purge of one of the political factions. The rumours of the existence of such a document, and the disappearance of the manuscript being studied by the murdered scholar, are surely connected.
Ranged against Dasan and In-mong is the éminence gris Shim Hwan-ji, the ideological conservative who seems to be the puppet-master behind many of the ominous events, and who is certainly no friend of the Catholics. But at the centre of it all is Sado’s son King Jeongjo: he is himself a master politician and a scholar to match any of the literati at court.
With all these powerful characters, Yi In-hwa spins a masterful tale, which has justifiably been likened to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Not only is the storyline fast-paced and intricate, but also the author manages to give the reader a glimmer of an idea of why the Confucian classics were so important to political life in the Joseon dynasty, and why one political faction might prefer one group of canonical texts over another; he also indicates how a seemingly innocuous piece of poetry can have real-world significance if the audience is well-versed in the symbolism traditionally used in the classical texts. All this is done without getting too bogged down in the intricacies. While you are enjoying the plot you feel as if you are absorbing Confucian culture in the most entertaining way possible.
It is these elements which make the novel stand above the latest suite of K-thrillers that we are enjoying. And it is interesting that even though the excellent translation by Yu Young-nan was published by Eastbridge back in 2002, the title is listed by the Barbara J Zitwer Agency, home of so many past and upcoming thrillers – maybe we can look forward to a republication soon. If you have enjoyed reading thrillers like Kim Unsu’s The Plotters, do give this historical thriller a try too.
Yi In-hwa: Everlasting Empire
Translated by Yu Young-nan
Eastbridge, 2002, 260pp
Originally published as 영원한 제국, Segyesa, 1993