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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Your Paradise

Yi Ch'ongjun

general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Your Paradise

Title: Your Paradise
Author: Yi Ch'ongjun
Genre: Novel
Written: 1976 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 511 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: Your Paradise - US
Your Paradise - UK
Your Paradise - Canada
Ce paradis qui est le vôtre - France
  • Translated by Jennifer M. Lee and Timothy R. Tangherlini

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective allegory

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The bulk of Your Paradise is set in the 1960s, on an island that is a leper colony. The novel begins with the arrival of a new director, Colonel Cho Paegon, and chronicles his efforts to change the island and the islanders' circumstances. Your Paradise is also an allegory -- of military and then near-dictatorial civilian rule in South Korea, focussed on the question of whether betterment (and happiness) can be forced upon a population from above.
       There are about five thousand patients on the island, living in seven villages, with about two hundred staff and administrators handling their care and governance. The natural beauty of the place stands in stark contrast to the oppressive feel of it: even though the disease poses only a limited risk, it marks many of the inhabitants and they feel like outsiders, with little hope for anything resembling normal lives. And even on the island normality isn't particularly cheerful. They are not welcome on the mainland, and yet they yearn for integration into the larger community.
       When the new director arrives there is still a very strict separation between the patients and the staff: patients -- even those who have been cured of leprosy -- are required to stand several paces away whenever approaching staff, and to cover their mouths and turn aside when speaking. The new director immediately begins to tear down the barriers on the island. His ambition is to turn the island into a paradise of sorts -- a place where the inhabitants can feel like any other citizen.
       The locals aren't quite as keen as the director, and so he has to try to impose his designs on them. He's not the first to do it: under the Japanese occupation there was a director who made great strides in improving the facilities on the island. But ultimately he too failed; part of his failure was seen as the shift in his focus to personal aggrandizement, the island becoming more and more a testament to his accomplishments, rather than something truly done for the benefit of the patients. Ultimately what he cared for was the statue built to immortalize him, the ultimate symbol of where he went wrong. Director Cho is repeatedly reminded of this and other statues -- and how even the Japanese director has started with the best of intentions (indeed, the statue of him wasn't even his idea ...).
       One of Director Cho's first projects to help the locals gain self-respect is by getting them to play soccer (football). The idea is greeted incredulously, but sports-fever takes over. He eventually enters a team from the island in mainland competitions -- bizarre contests where the opposing players flee from the lepers, who nevertheless have some trouble playing the game the way it is meant to be played. Director Cho's speeches to the crowds and the islanders (and his own behaviour on the sideline, gun in hand) are inspirational only in a condescending way -- but still more than the patients had ever heard before. Sports effectively rouses and unites the masses here. (It's probably no coincidence that Yi gives football such a prominent role in the book, as these unlikely triumphs come at about the same time as (North) Korea's historic World Cup success.)
       Director Cho has much bigger plans, but his next project is even more demanding: he proposes an enormous land-reclamation project. Aside from the obvious symbolism -- it would unify the island with the mainland, leaving the lepers no longer cut and cast off from the rest of society -- it would also allow them to grow enough food for self-sufficiency and thus become more independent at the same time.
       It is a Sisyphean task, and makes for much of the drama in the novel. While the patients are eager enough at first, it comes at an enormous cost -- and soon enough it's no longer as clear whether this is a project to benefit the islanders or one which will be the director's glorious crowning achievement -- his statue, in other words.
       Only a few other characters figure prominently in the book, including the director's often reluctant helper, head of the Hygiene Division Yi Sanguk, as well as one of the local leaders, Elder Hwang. While the patients are seen largely as one large mass, these few are very much individuals, each with their own thoughts and agenda, barely able to comfortably work together over any long stretches (making for a nice realistic constant sense of tension).
       The horrific experiences of many of those who live on the island are also revealed, a burden that complicates any hope for creating a paradise. While their infirmity is generally kept in check there are still barbaric elements to life on the island, including the popularity of castration as a problem-solving method. The belief that the land reclamation project demands the sacrifice of five lives also leads to predictable results.
       Director Cho is a military man, but he resigns his commission in order to stay on as director when the military government is replaced by a civilian one; he does, however, keep his gun. His struggle is one of imposing his will and yet also allowing the people to truly create their paradise -- one fitting their needs and desires. Director Cho believes it is freedom and (self-)respect that are the keys; love is suggested as another essential ingredient. Late in the book the action jumps ahead seven years, allowing the characters to reflect on what went wrong. A journalist describes writing about Director Cho and the island to the director:

     "I didn't depict you as a hero for your sake, I created a hero for the entire island. Now that the situation is as it is, I wonder if it was really necessary to create such a hero. (...) Did the island really need a hero ? Where could the islanders find true happiness ...?
       The message of the Brechtian echo -- reminding of Galileo's 'unhappy is the land that needs a hero' -- is even more emphatic, as the (potential) heroes are, in fact, the authorities (or representatives thereof). Yi's morality tale clearly concludes that happiness can not be imposed from above, no matter how well-intentioned.
       Your Paradise is an allegory, and sometimes a fairly obvious one, but it still makes for a compelling read. The focus shifts somewhat uneasily -- mainly it is on Director Cho, and yet even he is not fully revealed or realised -- and some of the horror stories are interspersed rather oddly in the text, but the story moves along quite well. Admirably, Yi does not offer simple solutions or easy resolutions, but still shapes a satisfactory whole.
       Your Paradise is an allegory, but this volume comes without so much as an introduction or any form of explanatory notes (or even any biographical information about the author). The text stands well enough on its own, but there's obviously more to it than meets the general non-Korean reader's eye, and a bit of explanation and context would have been welcome.

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Your Paradise: Yi Ch'ongjun: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Yi Ch'ongjun is a popular Korean writer. He was born in 1939.

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© 2005-2009 the complete review

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