Country of Focus: Korea
(From the South China Morning Post. Link to the complete article given below)
A Korean woman struggles in 19th century France in Man Asian Literary Prize winner’s latest book, The Court Dancer
The Court Dancer, the latest novel by Man Asian Literary Prize winner Shin Kyung-sook, is likely to be read in several different ways. The first, and in some ways the most commercial, is as East-West romantic period fiction in the tradition of, say, Alessandro Baricco’s Silk or any number of English-language examples.
In the late 1880s, at a time of growing international threat to the Joseon dynasty, Yi Jin, a court lady, confidante to the queen and accomplished dancer, attracts the eye of the newly arrived French legate Victor Collin de Plancy, just as the queen starts to worry that Jin’s beauty might also catch the eye of the King. Jin has, fortunately or coincidentally, been taught French by a French missionary.
Victor is smitten and, contrary to both tradition and protocol, asks for her to visit the Legation, where she has her first encounter with both Berlioz and champagne: “Jin took a sip of champagne and closed her eyes. It spread in her mouth a fragrance as sweet as the music floating in her ears.”
More substantially, Jin finds herself attracted to Victor’s library.
Victor soon asks for her hand – Jin’s own feelings are ambiguous and remain so, but has little choice in the end – and he is permitted to take her back to France. There, her beauty and fluency in French create a sensation; she impresses real-life author Guy de Maupassant when she reads his work at a gathering at the fashionable Le Bon Marché, and helps translate some of the first Korean literature into French. But she’s a fish out of water, and Victor takes her back to Korea, where she finds she no longer fits either.