Subject A Storyteller’s Destiny TWITTER THIS FACEBOOK THIS Count 5235
Author/Position Lee Seung-U  

Lee Seung-U (b. 1959) began his literary career in 1981. In his novels, the former theology student has delved into the inner realm of people of the secular world from the metaphysical perspective of a Christian worldview. His novel, The Private Life of Plants (La Vie Rêvée des Plantes), has been included in the Folio series of French publisher Gallimard. The short story “The Storyteller’s Tale” (2006) is part of his ninth collection, My Old Diary.


A Storyteller’s Destiny

Yi Soo-hyung Research Professor, Seoul National University

Lee Seung-U made his literary debut in 1981 with A Portrait of Erysichton, in which he raised religious questions about God, violence, and original sin. Thereafter, he has written novels and short fiction that explore the topics of salvation, guilt, and other metaphysical themes of contemporary people. As is evident in his well-known work, The Reverse Side of Life (1992), metaphysical exploration is an essential aspect of his writing. In this sense, for Lee Seung-u, writing a novel (or writing in general) is not limited to the realm of literature, but a reflective process that addresses the existential issues faced by people of modern society. In “The Storyteller’s Tale,” he weaves the story around the wandering storytellers who roamed the country during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). By extending the act of writing a literary work (or writing in general) to the act of storytelling (or talking), this story deals with a theme of self-reflection, which is undertaken on a more general, everyday level.
The protagonist of this story is a man who would have otherwise lived an ordinary, uneventful life, except that he gets laid off from his job, in the aftermath of a global economic crisis. Reading a novel, much less writing one, has never been an important part of his life, along with dwelling on existential questions. If such a man experienced a sense of deep solitude and alienation, after more than a year of unemployment, would this be a fortunate or unfortunate outcome for him? Although such an experience would no doubt be difficult for most individuals, it might not be entirely a misfortune to come face to face with the unavoidable truth that anyone in this modern world has a desperate craving for communication, even though they isolate themselves in a closet within, while hiding their deepest desire for a sense of connection as well as their loneliness.
The man’s wife, who has worried increasingly about his prolonged unemployment, starts working for “Seoul, 21st-century Storytellers,” an Internet-based membership service that dispatches readers to its members. At his wife’s request to fill in for a reader who was sick, the man agrees to visit an elderly member’s home. Of course, he does not expect to get anything out of his role as a substitute storyteller. Besides, the elderly member with deep wrinkles and blank eyes shows an expression of total disinterest in the world around him. Why would such an elderly man, in an almost comatose state, want someone to read a story to him?
Although with reluctance, the protagonist starts reading On Life and Essays on Religion by Leo Tolstoy. The elderly man’s face remained expressionless, revealing no hint that he was paying attention. As the elderly man’s apparent inattention continued, the protagonist gets weary of the meaningless act of talking to someone who does not seem to listen. In fact, this unpleasant situation reminds him of the awkwardness that he had to endure in his previous work. He realizes that his loneliness was not something created by the loss of his job, but an essential human condition, and that he had simply failed to acknowledge this in his mindless pursuit of the mundane. Then, to gain relief from his own solitude, he starts to tell the elderly man about stories from his own life, instead of reading from books.
Anyway, from a certain moment I, the narrator, no longer paid any attention to the preferences or opinions of the old man, the client, but simply selected and told this or that story as I wished. As I went on expanding my stories, it finally dawned on me that perhaps I was not telling stories for him to listen to but rather he was listening so that I could tell stories. If the benefit I got from talking was greater than that which he received from listening, who is dependent on whom? Surely human nature is closer to being “a speaking being” than “a listening being”…
In “The Storyteller’s Tale,” the narration has a conversational tone, telling the stories of the man’s life to the elderly man and the reader as well. The protagonist talks about how he lost his job, what an unexpected blow it was, what his life has been like since then, and how he has come to see the elderly man. In fact, the contents of the stories might be of little importance. What is truly important is to recognize that had he not been in such a situation, which made him feel inclined to talk about himself, the stories would never have been told to anyone.
As is revealed later, the elderly man who listens silently to the man’s stories feels the same way. Decades ago, the elderly man was involved in a particular political incident, the likes of which happened frequently in Korea during the 1970s and 1980s, along its thorny path toward democracy. Breaking 30 years of silence, he starts to talk about his personal experiences, too. It seems that the elderly man has been listening to the stories of his visitor to endure the silence forced upon him, because the man’s stories, in some sense, could be anyone’s, including that of himself.
After enduring 30 years silence, the elderly man finally talks about himself after hearing the news that the man, who had promised the old man that he would restore his former glory if he keeps silent until he calls him, died. The protagonist mutters: “We should never forget that, as someone once said, under the surface of our lives flows long and dark, amazing and passionate, stories that there is no way of knowing unless they are told.” Our lives, as well as that of the protagonist and the elderly man, are afflicted with stories that cannot be heard when not told—the stories that seek to find a way out to be told. Talking, or writing a novel, can be a process to share such stories. What is the purpose of this behavior, anyway? But, it is less about a purpose than getting to know about ourselves, about others, and ultimately about each other. Our life itself is a process of knowing and understanding each other, not for any specific purpose, but for the sake of understanding itself. In that sense, we are destined to be a kind of storyteller as well. And those who are a bit more sensitive to this destiny can become novelists.

▲ Prev Continuing Education for an Older Population
▼ Next El invariable deseo de otoño
Current Issue
Previous Issues