[BOOK REVIEW]A historical mystery in old Joseon

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[BOOK REVIEW]A historical mystery in old Joseon

"Everlasting Empire," written by Yi In-hwa and translated by Yu Young-nan, elicits a range of responses from readers. As part mystery and part historical account of the factional infighting and political struggles of the Korean Joseon dynasty, the story unfolds before us with the narrator happening upon an old manuscript written in Chinese characters. This narrator translates the manuscript into Korean and occasionally inserts himself into the text to offer explanations of political terms and historical figures.

The story that is translated is about the writer of the manuscript, Librarian Yi In-mong, who opens his tale with the death of the Royal Book Examiner and subsequent events that lead to a search for a truth hidden by more deaths and schemes.

Who is scheming and who is not? Who is telling the truth and who is not? Through the lens of a provincial southerner, Yi In-mong, the task of locating the truth is a difficult yet suspenseful task, hinged on the whereabouts of different manuscripts that may or may not exist. In the search for these manuscripts, the blur and exchange between dichotomies such as dreams and reality, fiction and history, knowledge and ignorance, truth and falsehood, past and present, existence and nonexistence, and, ultimately, what is mutable and immutable, is what makes Yi's storytelling so compelling.

Having read both the English translation and Korean original, I was surprised to find the translation -- for which Ms. Yu won the Daesan Foundation prize -- more accessible. Donald Baker's introduction will be valuable in putting historical facts in perspective for readers unfamiliar with the historical details of the Joseon Dynasty, and the chronology, glossary and list of characters by Ms. Yu will also aid readers in keeping track of the figures involved.


by Mary Kim

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