This time we’ll finish up part 3 of Kyung-sook Shin’s historical novel, Jin Lee (신경숙의《리진》). We only got through chapter 1 last time, and there are five more chapters remaining in this section.
Chapter 2 is “A Feather Pen and Blue Ink,” which is fairly short and turns into a slice of life description of Jin and Collin’s domestic life. It begins as usual with a letter to the Queen dated March of 1892, and excitedly tells the Queen all about France’s transportation inventions, particularly its railroads which allow Paris to get fresh vegetables from the countryside. She also mentions steamships and various world harbors. At this point, Jin is reading Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days.
In the next scene, we see Jin waking up with Collin and their white cat Quasimodo, which was named after The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She’s having some trouble adjusting to a Western bed and prefers to sleep on the floor. The make a bit of pillow talk throughout the chapter, and there is a mention of the translation project with Jongu Hong. Among their long list of discussion topics, they talk more about going sightseeing. The cat is rather important in this chapter, and it ends with Jin trying to write a second letter to the Queen.
Chapter 3 is “Who Am I?” Jin’s opening letter here to the Queen is dated July, 1892, and Jin compares reading the Paris newspaper and Joseon newspapers. She also mentions famous Paris district, Montmartre. This is a very important area of town, particularly since it was a favorite haunt of many painters and this book is set right in the middle of the time of its popularity with artists, so let’s pause for a little more detail on that:
Jin goes sightseeing in Paris with Collin. They are near the Eiffel Tower and finally make their way to the Louvre. They talk about going to the opera house and try to figure out whom they want to invite from the salon. This section with Collin and Jin waiting to get into the Louvre is juxtaposed with Jin’s memories of going to the morgue with Guy de Maupassant earlier. Tourists stand before a few unidentified female bodies at the morgue, which makes it awkward between Jin and Maupassant, and they have to walk through vomit. They also went to Montparnasse Cemetery. This link will explain the significance of that site:
Jin gets upset to see the morgue is a tourist attraction, and she questions Maupassant about the morbid fascination with it.
Jin and Collin enter the Louvre and comment about various famous objects, such as the sphinx, the Venus de Milo, and famous paintings. They end up among the crowds on the banks of the Seine River , where the discussion between Jin and Collin turns to the “Joseon spirit” as opposed to I guess the “French spirit.” It’s kind of a fuzzy term, but it seems like they had a little tiff over national pride. This particularly was reflected in Jin’s talk about Joseon’s books and the gap between the invention of the printing press by Guttenberg in the West in 1440 and the oldest book printed with moveable type, which was the Korean book Jikji by a Buddhist monastery in 1377. Details on the history of the printing press can be found here:
Chapter 4 is “The Ball,” which begins with a rather brief letter to the Queen in May of 1893 and leaves quite a big time gap between the last chapter and this one. Here Jin is telling the Queen about German flying machines and inventor Otto Lilienthal.
One thing that becomes clear reading volume 2 of this series and maybe even to a lesser degree in volume 1 is that the author really is focusing on inventions of the times. It seems like a lot of the narrative is hung on Western inventions and encounters with Western culture even beyond the obvious situation of a Parisian diplomat marrying a Korean court dancer. But this letter notes that Collin really isn’t as excited as Jin is, which makes sense given that the Queen is also trying to modernize Joseon and is trying to bring Western culture in to implement that plan.
This chapter begins with a gathering in the mansion garden of Foreign Affairs Minister Cogordan, whose daughter is getting married at Notre Dame. The wedding includes the ceremony, banquet and ball. Jongu Hong is holding court at the party. He typically wears Korean clothes and doesn’t seem that interested in blending in. There are lots of French names flying around here, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say one prominent man at this party is Henri Phillippe, and he asks Jongu Hong if Jin is his wife. Of course, Jongu Hong says she is married to Collin. Apparently, there is some travel club Jongu Hong belongs to, and a man named Guimet is coming up a lot here and earlier, so it might be this historical figure, Emile Guimet:
This link also mentions a personage that Hong is now staying with, Felix Regamey. Both Regamey and Guimet traveled to Japan, so this would be of interest to Jongu Hong. So they are at this wedding discussing all of these related topics. They talk about taking portraits of King Gojong and his father.
When the band starts playing Strauss at the banquet, Collin and Jin join the other married couples on the dance floor. Jongu Hong comes up to ask to dance with Jin, and Collin reluctantly lets him. As they dance the waltz, Jongu Hong steps on her foot, and they talk about Korean books. When the music changes, Jin reminds him she is Collin’s wife, and they return to the table where Collin is waiting. Most of the chapter describes the small talk and activities at this party. When the discussion turns to Montmartre, the Moulin Rouge and the can can, Jin feels ill, and they call for a carriage to take her to the hospital.
Chapter 5 is titled “The Eastern Chamber.” This time the opening letter to the Queen is longer, dated October, 1893, and Jin writes about the schools of Paris, many of which were affiliated with religious orders. The clergy had a great influence over them, and Jin talks about what sorts of books they would read in these schools, which includes a lot of world literature translated into French. She compares some of the writing curriculum with that of students in Joseon.
The chapter continues with Jin in her domestic role, and she is visited by a nun from Malaysia who speaks Korean named Sister Jacqueline. They have refreshments in the salon that Collin has set up to display his collection of items from the Far East. It is this room that the title of the chapter references. Sister Jacqueline is somehow affiliated with Missionary Blanc and talks with Jin about a farmers’ uprising in Joseon, which has Jin very worried. She also brings Jin news of Mrs. Seo and Yeon Kang, who is teaching the children at the orphanage. She delivers a letter from Yeon Kang to Jin.
After Sister Jacqueline leaves, Jongu Hong arrives for a chat and joins her in the Eastern salon. He announces he is returning to Joseon. They talk about sending a book of Maupassant’s stories to the Queen and about the Guimet Museum.
Chapter 6 is “From Boulogne Forest,” and Jin starts this one off with a long undated letter to the Queen discussing the massacre of Indians by the American government. She’s referring to the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee since she mentions Sitting Bull, but she also mentions some women’s bill passing in New Zealand’s parliament that she read about in the paper. She leaves this letter undated, saying that she doesn’t remember it. Most of this chapter relates how Jin and Collin visit a zoo and the Boulonge forest, but it closes part 3 with the dramatic announcement of Maupassant’s death, Jongu Hong leaving Paris, the assassination of a prominent figure in Joseon, and the Dreyfus Affair starting to heat up in France. That puts the story somewhere around 1894.
My overall impression of this first half of volume 2, as a reader and as a writer, is that it seems a bit overwhelming to have all of these historical figures appearing, and I can’t imagine trying to fit them all together within a fictional plot and recreate them as an author. I assume Jin Lee isn’t a historical figure, though I don’t know for sure. But then on the other hand, it is fascinating as a Westerner to hear about figures like Guimet and Regamey and their encounters with Eastern culture, which is really not widely known in Western culture today. Westerners who went to Asia when it first opened up and modernized are hardly household names in the modern era, so this volume is educational on that score. That cultural interaction was one reason I selected this book series to examine.
Here is the link for the Musee Guimet’s page on its Korean collection (French only):
My high school French is really coming in handy studying this book, but I don’t claim to have a deep knowledge of French culture by any stretch. You can go to Paris and actually visit this museum. It has a focus on Asian art, particularly East Asian art, and be sure to check the page on Buddhism here:
Next time, we finish part 4 of volume 2 and wrap up this series.
Part five of a six part series.