[VIEWPOINT]Preserve the Masterful Poet's Dwelling

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[VIEWPOINT]Preserve the Masterful Poet's Dwelling

Suh Jhung-joo, a great Korean poet known by his pen name, Midang, passed away in December last year. The house in which he lived for 30 years, in Namhyeon-dong, Gwanak-gu, Seoul, is about to be sold. After the house is sold, it will more than likely, as is usual these days, be demolished by profit-hungry property developers and "one room" bachelor flats or low-rise apartments will spring up on the site.

The house was the first-built in the "artists' village" constructed in the 1970s by leading literary men, including Mr. Suh, Hwang Sun-won, E Won-soo and Yi Hae-rang, in an area where the pheasants were heard singing in the woods. The village, woods and most traces of these literary men have since been obliterated by commercial enterprise. But Mr. Suh's house remains, exuding a tranquil, cultured air, with the silver magnolia, bamboo and other flowers he planted in the garden and the pine tree in front of the gate that was once the village emblem. On the second floor a round table stands at the south-facing window from which the peak of Mount Gwanak can be seen. Here the poet sat as he chiseled our language, writing poems from which most Koreans can recite at least one line today. The old poet's possessions - and his spirit - linger in the house. But they may be stamped out.

On the request of Midang's hometown office, I restored the house of his birth in Gochang-gun, North Cholla province. And I still work on a memorial hall nearby filled with his poems. Though the hall is modest, I work on it with pleasure, believing it to represent the many great Korean poets of the 20th century who are not honored with such monuments. When I visited the poet last year for reasons related to this memorial hall, he refused to cooperate. I believe he disliked the public attention that the memorial project drew to him. So it was only after his death that I came to hear from his family and his students that he didn't want to leave anything behind: he wanted his body to be cremated and the house to be sold and the profits distributed to his two sons.

Despite this, I think the house should be saved because it is so much more important in terms of cultural heritage than the memorial hall in Gochang. I heard that the authorities had planned to buy the house for preservation and had allocated a budget of 500 million ($380,000) won to this purpose, but the plan had been abandoned. This was due to the criticism of, among other things, the poet's pro-Japanese writings during the colonial period. As many know, the poet wrote two pro-Japanese poems in 1943 and 1944. But he also wrote a few poems in penitence. As an architect, I don't know whether poems of penitence can make up for these wrongs or whether the thousand masterpieces he wrote are dimmed in the cloud of his problematic past. It is natural that people dislike the poet's pro-Japanese works - but it is much more problematic historically to abandon this priceless monument of Korean literary history. Evidently, our failure to punish pro-Japanese activities after the liberation in 1945 is still a stain today.

But I simply believe that the place where our great contemporary poet wrote his poems should be left intact so that our descendants will be allowed to evaluate his contributions. We have already destroyed too many historical and cultural relics. A mere 300 million won would secure the house's continued existence. Once we have saved the house, then we can discuss the poet's legacy - good or bad. Are we really so poor or numb to our culture that we can stand by and watch a great poet's house destroyed?

The poet's questionable past had for a long time been revenged by threatening phone calls, which caused him neurosis - he died of malnutrition from alcoholism. That violent, anti-cultural sentiment is behind plans for the destruction of the house. I may well be the next recipient of those phone calls, but the house must be preserved, if only for sake of the controversy itself.


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The writer is an architect.

by Kim Won

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