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Endless Blue Sky
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B : all over the place, for better and worse
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Endless Blue Sky was serialized (in 148 installments) in a newspaper in what was then still Japanese-controlled Korea, and most of the action takes place in Seoul and Harbin, in Japanese-occupied Manchuria.
The main character is Cheon Ilma, who has been engaged as a 'cultural envoy' by a local newspaper, the Hyundai Daily, to secure a performance of a Harbin-based symphony orchestra in Seoul -- a major cultural coup that would be seen as another step in establishing Seoul as a modern cosmopolitan center (rather than Eastern backwater).
'For some reason, whenever I come here, I feel like I've arrived at the place I've been searching for.'Three women figure prominently in the now thirty-five-year-old Ilma's life. There's Miryeo, whom he had been in love with but who chose to marry the successful businessman Yu Manhae some eight years earlier -- though the educated ("extremely cultured") and "thoroughly modern woman" Miryeo and her philistine husband hardly seem an ideal match -- indeed: "For Miryeo's part, she hadn't been happy with the marriage from the start". There's also the film actress Danyeong, who is obsessed with Ilma and practically stalks him -- while she, in turn, is relentlessly pursued by the devoted Kim Myeongdo, who runs the studio she is signed up with and will do anything for her. Finally, there's Nadia, the blond Russian working in a Harbin cabaret, who Ilma falls head over heels in love with and promptly marries.
Ilma seems to lead an almost charmed life -- as illustrated early on, when he heads to Harbin and he literally wins the lottery, and almost immediately afterwards cleans up at the horse racetrack too. He's also never really seen doing any sort of work (yes, he apparently organizes the orchestra-visit to Seoul, but what that involves remains a mystery), and leads a laid-back, leisurely life. He's deeply in love with Nadia, and she's very happy with him as well, and while jealousy rears its head on occasion -- there's that poor Russian Ivanov whom Nadia is friendly with -- it ultimately barely causes much of a ripple. More of a problem are the women from Ilma's past, who continue to want to be part of his present and future .....
The situation with Miryeo is complicated by the fact that her husband is roped into being a sponsor for the orchestral visit -- and then by the collapse of her marriage (which comes on the heels of the collapse of Manhae's business). Meanwhile, Danyeong just won't let go, resorting to rather underhanded ploys to get Ilma into bed and then acting out in ultimate desperation.
Endless Blue Sky is packed with melodrama and twisting fates, including a kidnapping in Harbin, which Ilma gets called on to help a friend deal with; typically, however, Lee bites off more than he's willing to chew -- the kidnapping plotline is underwhelming, to say the least, and used as little more than an excuse to separate Nadia and Ilma for a time. Along the way, there's also some drug addiction -- one of Nadia's friends --, a variety of business dealings, and quite the tangle of romance.
The novel is interesting for its portrayal of how that Korea measures itself against Western culture, which is a constant point of comparison. The characters go to the movies quite often -- the 1937 film Southern Carrier, based on a work by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, features particularly prominently ("We saw the movie the day before yesterday, and you're imitating it today", a friend observes to Miryeo) --, while the orchestra-visit is seen as a major milestone:
'Ilma did a good job getting the symphony orchestra to come to Seoul.'At times, the Western ideal gets almost ridiculously exaggerated, as when, in planning a music academy, they have grand ambitions for the grounds -- and: "Of course, we'll import the grass from England".
If a bit simplistic and exaggerated, the dynamics -- especially between Danyeong, tortured Kim Myeongdo ("I don't give a damn about ethics. Desire is all I feel and all I care about is satisfying it"), and Ilma -- are quite effective (though the intricacies of many of the other relationships and cross-relationships (and there are a lot) remain underdeveloped). Somewhat disappointingly, too, despite some high drama -- the break-up of Miryeo's marriage; the increasing desperation of Danyeong, and the lengths she's willing to go to; Eunpa's drug-dependence -- Lee always goes for the softest of landings: pretty much everything in Endless Blue Sky almost effortlessly seems to work out for the best. There's very little tragedy to all this melodrama -- a positive spin that leaves the story (or rather the many stories) feeling a bit shallow.
Impressive, on the other hand, is the treatment of the female characters. Danyeong is arguably too manipulative, and motivated only by her heart (and lust), but she's a lively, well-drawn character. More significantly, Miryeo is a true modern woman, a striking contrast to her husband (who, after beginning as a well-respected businessman fails at what he's supposed to be good at) and someone who actually builds something (or is in the process of building it), a music academy for women (though the one awful part of this plan is the proposal Miryeo's friend makes: "Candidates should be chosen more for their appearance than their grades. If possible, you should admit and train beautiful women, and this should be the Nokseong Music Academy's first policy"). While the women do fawn over Ilma rather too readily, they're for the most part more interesting than he is: although he is very much the central character of the novel, he isn't a very active one: yes, he travels around a lot, but he's rarely seen actively accomplishing much, whether at his supposed work or, for example, in helping resolve the kidnapping.
Occasionally, Lee also retreats from the almost breathless action (or at least flurry of activity -- one can really feel how this 148-installment story skips along) to weigh in more philosophically:
People were empty husks floating on the water. Something with weight and substance would sink, but crushed, empty husks float aimlessly on the surface of the water, spinning helplessly. Humans were mostly such empty husks. Most cities were the same, but Harbin, in particular, was a city of empty husks. The streets were international display cases of empty husks, harried by life, wandering in bewilderment. Such thoughts were not new for Ilma, but today they came to him with redoubled intensity.Lee has clearly been influence by the classical Western novel, and often veers towards imitation -- but he seems to be unsure, or change his mind about just what he wants to imitate, and to what extent. His story is over-full, his protagonist -- "nothing more than an empty husk" -- only able to assert himself to a certain, not quite sufficient degree (and some of the women around him generally more interesting).
Endless Blue Sky is an interesting novel of the times -- including in its focus on Korean culture, regarded also only in comparison and reaction to Western culture (and that, in part, refracted in the Russo-Chinese Harbin) while the dominant colonial influence of Japan is almost completely ignored: there's barely any sense of a Japanese presence in the book, despite the times (when in both Seoul and Manchuria it was in many ways overwhelming).
Lee's and his characters' engagement with all things Western is quite well-done -- sometimes a bit too obvious and/or simplistic, but quite well integrated into the story. The writing and expression is, at times, rough and often wooden -- more (very visible) effort than accomplishment -- but the momentum of the stories -- everything just barrels along -- and the sheer variety compensate somewhat for that. Lee seems to be trying to get to an awful lot in this crammed book, and the novel shows the strains of that -- a lot is underdeveloped, and many of the twists and turns come way too hard and fast. It doesn't help that the basic story he builds the novel on, getting the symphony orchestra to Seoul, is rather lame: even Lee seems unconvinced, unwilling to expend too much space or energy on making more (or something ...) of it.
Endless Blue Sky isn't exactly an apprentice work, but has the feel of a writer trying to figure out how he wants to write a novel. The serialized publication probably also contributed to how unsteady it is; Endless Blue Sky isn't exactly unpolished, but it's a bit of a raw heap that would have benefitted from a more decisive focus.
Flawed, in quite a variety of ways, it nevertheless is an intriguing and engaging read -- sometimes irritating (not least in everything always working out so easily well), there's a lot here to like, too.
- M.A.Orthofer, 24 August 2018
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Korean author Lee Hyoseok (Yi Hyosŏk; 이효석) lived 1907 to 1942.
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