[BOOK review] The butterflies of the stars and other fantasies

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[BOOK review] The butterflies of the stars and other fantasies


Bernard Werber, left, the French author of “Ant” and other best-selling novels, talking to Jeong I-hyeon, a rising Korean writer. [JoongAng Ilbo]

Bernard Werber was waiting for us by the door of his fourth-floor apartment in Paris. The 46-year-old novelist asked us to take off our shoes without offering any slippers. He only wore socks and explained he likes “Eastern ideas” such as not wearing shoes in the house.
Werber is better known in Korea than France. Eleven of his novels have been translated into Korean, including his first, “Ant,” published in 1993. Over 5 million copies were sold in Korea. His latest novel “Le Papilon Des Etoiles,” which was released earlier this month, is already a best seller, with over 500,000 copies sold. He was interviewed by Jeong I-hyeon, a popular Korean author who has just published “Today’s Lies,” a collection of short stories.

Q.Most of your books have been bestsellers in Korea. Why?
A.Korea is such a special country. I think the people have a mix of modern and conventional values. I think after their release from dictatorship, Koreans began to look forward rather than sticking to the present.
I write futurist novels. They depict a distant future that no one can really foresee. When I wrote “Papilon” the environmental issue was big in France. Instead of seeking ways to restore our ruined ecological system, I raised the question of what could be done if restoration is impossible. Economists and politicians fear that their analysis of the future will be wrong, and then their policies will be useless. That’s why writers need to produce stories about the future ― to make people raise questions about the present.

I felt that you have a sense of despair about humanity. Your vision of the future seems to be quite bleak. Do you have any optimism?
I am full of anxiety and apprehension. Writing for me is a form of therapy. That’s why my characters triumph in the end despite so many difficulties. My books arrive at an optimistic conclusion despite all the mistakes that humanity makes all the time. I call that hope. I felt a pure sense of pleasure when I was writing “Papilon.” I’m an optimist who dresses like a pessimist.

I cure my anxiety through writing, too. It makes me very happy when readers tell me that my stories have healed their wounds. What do readers mean to you?
They are very important to me. Many readers showed up when I had a book signing event in Korea in 1994, after the release of “Ant.” They had to use police officers to control the crowd. That was the first time I met so many of my readers at once. It was a pleasurable meeting. It was a special experience because it wasn’t in France. For writers it’s important to have a broad range of readers. But that’s very difficult, perhaps because it’s hard to offer the same inspiration to men and women, young and old.

I only want to communicate with my readers through my books while I stay anonymous. I feel that your personal experience is hidden somewhere in your works.
Writers are connected to the public in many ways, but I think their personal history should remain private. I live alone since I got divorced two years ago, but what’s important as a writer is to experience different aspects of the world.

Many readers say that your stories are a smooth read. I, too, hear such comments, but sometimes I get criticized for lacking literary depth because they read too smoothly.
In my first draft my writing tends to be very long and complex. It’s actually easier to write complex phrases, but I try to revise a lot by simplifying everything so that even children can understand.
I also have translation in mind. When you write complicated phrases there is a much higher risk of mistranslation. I try to stay away from using too many adjectives. That’s why the phrases read better. Readers can dive into the story more easily. I feel these phrases trigger a better sense of imagination among readers.

What’s your next book?
I have been writing a series about God. It’s a trilogy consisting of “We are God,” “God’s Breath” and “Myth of God.” It will be published in October and it took me nine years to complete.

By Lee Ji-young JoongAng Ilbo [myfeast@joongang.co.kr]
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