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Reading KIM Nae-seong 김내성

picture of the corridor Sungmundang, with its green wooden roof and its red wooden pillars.

Discovering KIM Nae-seong

KIM Nae-seong is the first Korean author who specialised in crime fiction.

He was born in 1909, just a year before the annexation of Korea by Japan. At 23, he went to Tokyo to study at Waseda University. While in Japan, he started writing detective novels, using his knowledge of Western literature. He wrote three stories in Japanese that were serialised in Japanese magazines.

He returned to Korea in 1936 and actively started his activity as author of detective novels. He adapted in Korean one of the stories he wrote in Japan (추리 소설가의 살인) and published it under the title 가상범인. This was the first appearance of KIM Nae-seong’s detective YU Bul-ran 유불란, who is the first Korean fictional detective. YU Bul-ran became famous with the serialisation in 1937 of the novel 백가면. KIM Nae-seong’s most famous work is certainly 마인 (1939).

YU Bul-ran: Korea’s first fictional detective

YU Bul-ran first appeared in 가상범인, but he is not a detective in this story, he is an author of detective stories. However, writing crime fiction and solving a real murder are closer activities than one might think. At the beginning of 가상범인, YU Bul-ran solves a crime by writing a play staging the persons involved in the murder.

YU Bul-ran’s name comes from the Korean transcription of Maurice Leblanc. Similarly to Edogawa Ranpo whose name is built after the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe, KIM Nae-seong used a possible transcription of Leblanc 르블랑 to create YU Bul-ran 유불란 (source).

KIM Nae-seong: romanticism and crime fiction

What follow are my impressions after reading KIM Nae-seong for the first time. When I read 가상범인, I was struck by the elements of Western romanticism in this story.

I personally find YU Bul-ran to be a romantic character. We often hear his inner voice when YU Bul-ran is confronted to difficult or dangerous situations. While in his study (p.18), we can see him talking to himself surrounded by hundreds of books. A pipe in his mouth, he is pacing up and down like a madman, exclaming to himself “아, 그렇다! 알았다! 알았다! 나의 인스피레이션이 틀림이 없었다!”. (Ah, that’s it! I got it! I got it! My inspiration hasn’t failed me!)

The novel is full of these kinds of exclamations that reveal an intense emotion in the characters or is supposed to create similar emotions in the reader. This emphasis on emotion is a characteristic of Romanticism. These emotions are not prompted by the beauty of nature or artistic experience, but by the presence of crime and danger.

Another romantic theme is the importance of inspiration. YU Bul-ran does not praise himself on his deduction or observation skills, he exclaims that his “inspiration” is right. When overcome by powerful emotions, YU Bul-ran can create. But his inspiration does not give birth to art or poetry, but to solving a crime.

The theme of nature, also important in Romanticism, is not totally absent from 가상범인. While the nature in itself does not play a role in the story, we hear the police inspector exclaim (p.71): “아아, 평화스러운 자연! 어데 죄악이 있으며 범죄가 있느냐? 엄숙한 듯하면서도 한편, 그 부드러운 손으로 우리들을 어루만져주는 자연. 아아, 자연에 굶주린 나!”. And the narrator echoes this monologue by adding “얼마나 그는 평화를 그리워하였던고!”

A longing for nature, an emphasis made on emotions and inspirations, a lyricism in the narration… Western Romanticism in 가상범인 gives it a unique dimension, and reading KIM Nae-seong today is both entertaining and instructive.

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