Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is the third most populous city in the world after Tokyo and Mexico City. In 2010, this megalopolis near the border between South and North Korea had a population of approximately 9.6 million, or 20% of Korean’s total population (Korean Statistical Information Service, 2010). Topographically, the Han [Hangang, 한강] River plays a crucial role: coming from a mountainous region in the east and flowing into the Yellow Sea, it cuts the city in two, the north bank and the south bank, connected by 28 bridges (The Seoul institute, 2018). Currently, the north bank [Gangbuk, 강북] is composed of 14 boroughs and the south bank [Gangnam 강남] of 11 boroughs. In addition, the city is spread out in a basin surrounded by a mountain range (The Seoul Research Data Service, 2013). Two years after the founding of the Chosŏn [조선] dynasty in September 1394, the city was chosen as the capital of this peninsula due to its military, political, and economic assets. The development of the country's ultra-fast economy during the second half of the 20th century is another important factor in comprehending a city like Seoul. After the Japanese imperialist colonization (1910-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953), South Korea devoted all its energy to economic growth. In the 1960s, this modern situation reinforced the centralization of Seoul. In a short period of time, the city became over-industrialized and overpopulated, requiring a considerable urbanization effort. The country set up a plan to decentralize the metropolis. Over the next three decades, office skyscrapers and large residential buildings sprouted up in the Korean capital and a subway system covering more than 605 square kilometers of land was implemented. This has resulted in a remarkable transformation of the cityscape and the lifestyle of its inhabitants (The City of Seoul).
The geographical and historical dimensions of Seoul have their own charm in the eyes of J.-M. G. Le Clézio. In a documentary film by François Caillat and Antoine de Gaudemar entitled Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio Between Worlds (2009), he refers to Seoul as “success city” where urban violence and nature coexist. The “cicadas” that “make more noise than the cars in summer” are comparable, according to him, to the human desire to “raise the tone” by means of “words of literature, of poetry” against the urban din (Gaillat and Gaudemar, 2009). The author discovered Korea late in his literary career. And although for a few years he taught literature and cinema at the University of Nanjing in China, it was first in Korea that he taught a course as an honorary visiting professor at the IHWA Women's University in Seoul until the year of the Nobel Prize, in addition to a few lectures at the Seoul International Forum for Literature (Bobae Oh, 2013). Without a doubt, J.-M. G. Le Clézio also encounters Asia through reading translations of Korean, Chinese and Japanese literature. In his speech in Stockholm, he cites Hwang Seok-Yong as one of the exiled writers in search of a “forest of paradoxes” that is “the domain of writing, the place from which the artist must not seek to escape” (Nobel Prize speech, 2008). Both from the same generation - J.-M. G. Le Clézio was born in 1940 and Seok-yong Hwang in 1943 - they met in 2018 during the interview on the theme, “Five stories about Seoul” (Kyobo Humanities Talks, 2018).
Korea is thus a relatively recent inspiration for Le Clézio’s work. The author stays in this “land of the morning calm” - named after the first and last dynasties, Chosŏn [조선 :朝鮮], before the constitution of the Republic of Korea in the 20th century - while writing History of the Foot and Other Stories (2011). The short story “Storm” (2014) is dedicated “[t]o the Haenyo, the women of the sea of Udo Island” (TDN, 2014, 9), which neighbors Jeju Island, located at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. J.-M. G. Le Clézio also presents the legend of the “sea fairies” who “brought to the seven stone men” of Jeju, “the art of weaving and basketry, singing and poetry, and the benefit of cooking food” in Museums are Worlds (MM, 2001, 21).
Published with the support of the city of Seoul (Hyoryeong Shin, 2017), first in Korean in December 2017,『빛나 서울 하늘 아래』, Bitna: Under the Sky of Seoul (2017) brings to the forefront one of the current sources of Leclezian writing. In this novel, which mentions the Korean capital in its title, the poetic aspect shimmers or signals as the meaning of the female first name “Bitna” in Korean: Bitna[빛나], derived from the verb bitnada [빛나다] means “to shine” or “to illuminate” or from the common noun bit [빛] which means “light”. A daughter of a fishing village in the South, Bitna is studying in Seoul, a city in which she feels oppressed by the violence of her aunt and cousin, a spoiled young girl. Her secret pleasure is to observe the passers-by and to take notes in her notebook. The large bookstore in Jongro is the best place for this intimate, literary activity where she soon discovers the pleasure of seeing and reading so many books. The bookseller, Frederick Pak, tells her about a young woman, Salome, who is looking for a storyteller. From then on, the novel takes the form of a polyphonic narrative at two levels: the story of the meeting between Bitna and Salomé, and the five embedded stories that Bitna invents for Salomé. Both female characters need freedom; Bitna is poor, while Salome is ill, suffering from the “complex regional pain syndrome” (BF, 98) that consumes her. Their meeting, reminiscent of Anton and Kekesfalva in Stefan Zweig's Dangerous Pity (1939), allows them to overcome the social and/or physical barriers that separate them from the world. Through Bitna's stories, Salome travels to places she could never go. She feels free like the birds of Mr. Cho, the main character of the first story. He raises and trains pigeons on the roof of the “Good luck!” where he works, hoping that these messenger birds will one day fly to North Korea, his mother's homeland. “Good luck!” is “a large building from the 1980s, part of the complex” - 20 stories high in this tale - in “Yongsan” (BF, 21). Spread out on a hill where the Namsan Tower stands, this Seoul district is known for housing a U.S. army garrison and as the neighborhood for North Korean refugees and South Korean returnees at the end of the Korean War. The Korean translator of Bitna: Under the Sky of Seoul confirms the existence of the places in Seoul visited by J.- M. G. Le Clézio, including “Yongsan” between “Seorae village, Gangnam”, “Hongdae, Dangsan-dong, Oryu-dong, Gwacheon zoo, Chungmu-ro, Jong-ro, Myeong-dong, Youngdeungpo, Yeouido, Insa-dong, Anguk-dong, Gyeongbokgug, Changdukgug, Cheongyecheon, Bukhan-san, Nam-san, Gamsil, Hangang”, etc. (BC, “epilogue”, 246-247). In order to understand toponymy in Korean, it is important to recall that the word san[산 (Korean) :山(Chinese)] means “mountain”, dong[동 :洞] “neighborhood” or “village”, gu[구 :區] “borough”, ro[로 : 路] “street”, po[포 :浦] “port”, do[도 :島] or [도 :都] “island” or “county”, cheon[천 :川] “river”, gang[강 :江] “river”, and gug[궁 :宮] “royal palace”, For example, Yongsan-gu translates to Yongsan district, a name composed of yong[용 :龍] “dragon” and san “mountain” i.e., “dragon mountain”; Hangang “Han river”, etc. When training his pigeons, Mr. Cho “squats in front of the cages”, “talks to the birds”, “slowly pronounces their names, one after another” (BF, 21):
He blows on [the] beak softly, he whispers the words that encourage, not sentences, just words he chooses carefully, soft words, round words, light words. "Wind" "spirit" "light" "wing" "love" "return" "grass" "snow"... (BF, 21)
Through this image, both Adamic and divine, Mr. Cho gives life to words in a concrete world: the material and the spiritual, merging, create an ironic beauty. In Bitna's third story, Hanna, an orphanage worker, finds an abandoned child on a small street near the busy Hongdae district, where students and young people go out at night. Naomi, as Hanna calls her, has “a gift that other children don't have”: “She could see things that no one else could” (BF, 147). While Hanna unsuccessfully takes Naomi to religious places such as the "Bongwonsa Temple" (BF, 176), the “Myeong-dong Cathedral” (BF, 177), and a place where a shamanic rite takes place (BF, 177-178) in the belief that “she must have known God” (BF, 176), Naomi's imagination is more like that of a poet who draws inspiration from the natural world-“the sky”-and from literary reading. During a walk to Namsan, Hanna recites a poem by “Yun Dongju” (BF, 181), a poet who became a symbol of resistance against Japanese imperialism in Korea in the early 20th century. Here, J.-M. G. Le Clézio refers to the poem “La nuit où je compte les étoiles” (The night when I count the stars) from his collection Ciel, vent, étoiles et poèmes [Sky, Wind, Stars and Poems] (1948). This collection of poems, completed in 1941, would not see the light of day until 1948, after its author's death in prison in 1945. For two years, he was detained for ideological crime in Fukuoka Penitentiary: he wrote only in Korean during the period of Japanese occupation in Korea (Yun Dongju Museum 윤동주문학관). Naomi believes that this poet would have seen the world she sees: the dragons in the sky, “[t]he one who wrote the poems saw them, I'm sure” (BF, 183), she says. Seoul is a city where the sensitivity of Bitna's character is revealed. Whether it is Mr. Cho on the roof of a popular building, or Naomi, not far from Mr. Cho, in Namsan, with Hanna, these people shine in the Leclézian world: they are Bitna-under the sky of Seoul.
Translated by Mary Vogl
« Section 01. Population », Seoul Statistical Series, The Seoul Institute : http://global.si.re.kr/seoul_statistical_series ; « Seoul Infographics », n° 251, The Seoul Institute, le 15 janvier 2018 : https://www.si.re.kr/node/58681 ; « Topography », The Seoul Research Data Service, 2013 : http://data.si.re.kr/node/49 ; « Urbanisation et transformation », Portail de l’urbanisme de Séoul, Ville de Séoul : http://urban.seoul.go.kr/4DUPIS/sub2/sub2_1.jsp ;CAILLAT François, DE GAUDEMAR Antoine, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio entre les mondes, Paris, Édition vidéo France Télévisions Distribution, France 5, « Empreintes », 2009 ; OH Bobae, « Présentation d’une conférence de J.-M. G. Le Clézio à Séoul », in SALLES Marina, LOHKA Eileen (dir.), Voix de femmes, Les Cahiers J.-M. G. Le Clézio¸ n° 6, Paris, Complicités, 2013, p. 127-128 ; LE CLÉZIO Jean-Marie Gustave, « J.M. G. Le Clézio : Dans la forêt des paradoxes », La Fondation Nobel, le 07 décembre 2008 : https://www.nobelprize.org/uploads/2018/06/clezio-lecture_fr-3.pdf ; Lecture des Sciences humaines de Kyobo et entretien avec J.-M. G. Le Clézio et Hwang Suk-Young sur « Cinq histoires sur Séoul », organisés par La Fondation Daesan et KyoboMoongo, le 12 mars 2018, Séoul (« 2018년 교보인문한석강 특별 초청 대담회 : 르 클레지오·황석영 특별대담», 대산문화재단, 교보문고, 교보생명 주최, 2018년 3월 12일 월요일 저녁 7시 30분, 광화문 교보빌딩 23층 교보컨벤션홀) : http://www.kyobobook.co.kr/culture/cultureClassicDetail.laf?serviceGb=KHU&serviceCd=44&orderClick=zbu ; SHIN Hyoryeong, « Le Clézio “c’est un évènement important que j’ai écrit un roman sur ‘Séoul’” », Newsis, le 14 décembre 2017, (신효령, « 르 클레지오 “’서울’을 소설로 쓴건 내 인생 중요한 사건” », 뉴시스, 2017년 12월 14일) : https://newsis.com/view/?id=NISX20171214_0000176629&cID=10701&pID=10700 ; ZWEIG Stefan, La Pitié dangereuse, Paris, Grasset & Fasquelle, « Les Cahiers Rouges », 2002 ; YUN Dongju, Ciel, vent, étoiles et poèmes, trad. par KIM Hyeon-ju, MESINI Pierre, Marseille, Autres temps, « Temps poétique », 1997 (version originale, YUN Dongju, Ciel, vent, étoiles et poèmes, Séoul, Sowadari, 2016 (윤동주,『하늘과 바람과 별과 시』, 서울, 소와다리, 2016 (1948))) ; Musée de Yun Dongju, 윤동주문학관, Jongro-gu, Séoul : https://www.jfac.or.kr/site/main/content/yoondj01.
Les références en ligne ont été consultées le 11 avril 2020.
Works by J.-M. G. Le Clézio cited in this article
MM : Les Musées sont des mondes, Paris, Gallimard/Musée du Louvre Éditions, 2011.
HP : Histoire du pied et autres histoires, Paris, Gallimard, « Blanche », 2011
TDN : Tempête. Deux novellas, Paris, Gallimard, « Blanche », 2014.
BC : Bitna-sous le ciel de Séoul, Séoul, Séoul Collection, 2017 (J. M. G. 르 클레지오, 『빛나 서울 하늘 아래 』, 송기정 옮김, 서울, 서울컬렉션, 2017))
BF : Bitna-sous le ciel de Séoul, Paris, Stock, « La Bleue », 2018.