An exploration of Seoul — its landscape and its stories
by Nobel Prize winner J. M. G. Le Clézio
The French writer and Nobel Literature laureate J. M. G. Le Clézio has harbored a keen interest in Korea that not only prompted him to learn and master the Korean language on his own but also inspired his new novel. Bitna: Under the Sky of Seoul is Le Clézio’s portrait of Seoul—its people and its places—rendered with an intimate familiarity and attention to detail that few non-Korean writers, not to mention non-natives of the Seoul, could replicate. It is a story of life in the city as it is being lived today.
Five stories tied together in a frame narrative on a single theme
A drama about lives and connections that traverse reality and fantasy
The eponymous main character, Bitna, is a nineteen-year-old in her first year at university, and a recent transplant to Seoul from Jeolla-do, where her parents work in the fish market. As it was for Le Clézio, the city is for Bitna an unfamiliar, crowded, and lonely place. By chance, Bitna gets a part-time job telling stories to Salome, a woman with an incurable illness who now spends her days at home, waiting to die. Bitna’s stories open up a world of adventure for both Bitna and Salome.
Bitna tells Salome five stories in all: the story of Mr. Cho, a retiree who raises pigeons and imagines the home he left behind in North Korea during the war as a baby on his mother’s back; the story of the mysterious traveler Kitty and the messages she delivers to bring once-distant neighbors together in community and friendship; the story of Naomi, abandoned as a baby, and Hana, the woman who raises her, and their encounter with life and death; the story of the singer Nabi, who rises to stardom but falls victim to the greed and lies of the people around her; and Bitna’s own story, about her life in the city and the fear she comes to experience as a result of a faceless stalker. Each story is layered with diverse themes that have attracted the author’s interest over the years, including Korea’s traditions, religions, history, and cuisine, as well as intergenerational conflict, inter-Korean issues, and sociopolitical issues.
Through these stories, Le Clézio takes the reader on an extensive journey through Seoul, from the back alleys around Sinchon and Hongdae to landmarks like Gyeongbokgung Palace, Cheonggyecheon Stream, Bukhansan Mountain, and the Hangang River. Bitna is in fact a personal account of sorts, interwoven with the writer’s own memories of the neighborhoods he has gotten to know, the people he has met along the way, and the stories they have shared with him.
At a certain point, the reader will discover that the stories in Bitna are intertwined, and that they resonate in real ways, whether their substance is true or imagined, fact or fiction. They are stories that reflect the intersecting experiences of all who live, like Bitna, under the Seoul sky.
Experiences of life, death, despair and hope in the vast city of Seoul
Bitna is a picture of life in Seoul as it is experienced by various different kinds of people, with different parts of the city as backdrops. Le Clézio masterfully ties the individual stories together into a stirring and lyrical portrayal of the profound human capacity for warmth and compassion. And yet, as is true of the writer’s past works, the characters in Bitna are no strangers to sadness. Their lives are plain, unembellished accounts of the feelings of despair, sorrow, estrangement, and frustration that pervade the city and settle into its crevices like layers of dust.
At the same time, the character Salome, who, at the end of her life, yearns only to be told another story, and the stories of Bitna, meditations in their own right on life and death, are a testament to not only the preciousness of life but also the possibility of a courage that treasures life and refuses to give up on it. Life, the author seems to say, is something that must be lived to its end, in cries and fits and shudders and a fierce, constant struggle, until the soul takes its leave. The life that has been thwarted by defeat and disappointment is more luminous, and the future that awaits it brighter.