Translated by: Brother Anthony of Taizé
Publisher: Seoul Selection, 2018.
Link to online store *
The French writer and Nobel Literature laureate J. M. G. Le Clézio has harbored a keen interest in Korea that not only prompted him to learn and master the Korean language on his own but also inspired his new novel. Bitna: Under the Sky of Seoul is Le Clézio’s portrait of Seoul—its people and its places—rendered with an intimate familiarity and attention to detail that few non-Korean writers, not to mention non-natives of the Seoul, could replicate. It is a story of life in the city as it is being lived today.
Five stories tied together in a frame narrative on a single theme
A drama about lives and connections that traverse reality and fantasy
The eponymous main character, Bitna, is a nineteen-year-old in her first year at university, and a recent transplant to Seoul from Jeolla-do, where her parents work in the fish market. As it was for Le Clézio, the city is for Bitna an unfamiliar, crowded, and lonely place. By chance, Bitna gets a part-time job telling stories to Salome, a woman with an incurable illness who now spends her days at home, waiting to die. Bitna’s stories open up a world of adventure for both Bitna and Salome.
Bitna tells Salome five stories in all: the story of Mr. Cho, a retiree who raises pigeons and imagines the home he left behind in North Korea during the war as a baby on his mother’s back; the story of the mysterious traveler Kitty and the messages she delivers to bring once-distant neighbors together in community and friendship; the story of Naomi, abandoned as a baby, and Hana, the woman who raises her, and their encounter with life and death; the story of the singer Nabi, who rises to stardom but falls victim to the greed and lies of the people around her; and Bitna’s own story, about her life in the city and the fear she comes to experience as a result of a faceless stalker. Each story is layered with diverse themes that have attracted the author’s interest over the years, including Korea’s traditions, religions, history, and cuisine, as well as intergenerational conflict, inter-Korean issues, and sociopolitical issues.
Through these stories, Le Clézio takes the reader on an extensive journey through Seoul, from the back alleys around Sinchon and Hongdae to landmarks like Gyeongbokgung Palace, Cheonggyecheon Stream, Bukhansan Mountain, and the Hangang River. Bitna is in fact a personal account of sorts, interwoven with the writer’s own memories of the neighborhoods he has gotten to know, the people he has met along the way, and the stories they have shared with him.
At a certain point, the reader will discover that the stories in Bitna are intertwined, and that they resonate in real ways, whether their substance is true or imagined, fact or fiction. They are stories that reflect the intersecting experiences of all who live, like Bitna, under the Seoul sky.
As I write this brief comment, around two years after enjoying the book, I'm struggling to remember much about about the details. But I remember feeling warm as I read it, strangely comforted by a gentle, poetic narrative. Colin Marshall in the Los Angeles Review of Books blog has written a detailed review.
Entry on Goodreads.com here.
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