The Korea Herald


‘Korea, a culture of desires’: Le Clezio

Acclaimed French writer discusses evolving themes in Korean literature

By Rumy Doo

Published : June 2, 2016 - 16:12

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According to Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, it is significant that the Korean word for “desire” -- “baram” -- is also a homonym of the word for “wind.”

“Like the wind, desire is rough, intense and sudden, but it also provides useful inspiration. Isn’t this what all literature attempts to show?” posed the French-Mauritian writer and Nobel laureate at a lecture titled “Korea, a Culture of Desires” in Seoul on Wednesday.

“Literature has traditionally depicted diverse forms of desire -- desire for love, desire for an infinite existence, desire for an ideal world.”

In his lecture, Le Clezio discussed examples of how desire manifests itself in Korean literature, citing authors such as Hwang Sok-yong, Yun Dong-ju, Kim You-jeong and Lee Seung-u.

He also addressed the Korean sentiments of “han” and “jeong” -- “emotions that are untranslatable into French” and which talk of “bitterness and hopelessness” as well as “sharing and generosity,” respectively -- that are seen as defining postwar Korean literature. 

“The emptiness of war, the violence of division and the sentiment of ‘han’ persist in modern society. This is because brutality has ... increased in a society where individuals can no longer find a cause, a world filled with urbanization and a desire for success.”

Some contemporary writers, such as Han Kang, who became the first Korean national to win the Man Booker International Prize last month for her novel “The Vegetarian,” are moving past the collective memory of war and onto more “intimate and complex” themes, Le Clezio noted.

Nobel laureate and writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio gives a lecture titled “Korea, a Culture of Desires” at the Kyobo Building in downtown Seoul, Gwanghwamun district on Wednesday. (Yonhap) Nobel laureate and writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio gives a lecture titled “Korea, a Culture of Desires” at the Kyobo Building in downtown Seoul, Gwanghwamun district on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

“I had the opportunity to meet (writer Han) when I was teaching at Ewha Womans University. I asked her about ‘han’ and ‘jeong,’ and she said ‘Those are not my topics. I’m past that generation.’ I do not know if that is true, but she is more interested in questions of language and communication between individuals.

“She has a very subtle approach to reality. It’s not objective, but it shows ... individuality,” he added. 

Le Clezio wrapped up the lecture by talking about the “role of art in a world increasingly losing its sense of identity and mired in economic crises.”

Literature and its translation can “help different cultures, people and thoughts exist in harmony,” he said.

The full transcript of the lecture will be included in the summer edition of the quarterly Daesan Culture literary magazine, published by Daesan Foundation.

Le Clezio, 76, is a French-Mauritian author of more than 40 works, key among which is the 1963 novel “The Interrogation.” In 2008, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his life’s work. 

His lecture on Wednesday was the third installment of the “Creative France” humanities lecture series that invites prominent French figures from different fields to speak to audiences in Korea. It is hosted by the Daesan Foundation, Kyobo Book, the Embassy of France in Seoul and the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

Le Clezio is a frequent visitor to Korea and taught French language and literature at Ewha Womans University in 2007.

“What hit me was the good humor of Koreans,” he said when asked what drew him to the country. “I found they were extremely funny people, not serious like the Chinese and not sad like the Japanese. So this attraction made me want to come back.”

By Rumy Doo (