The Korea Herald


Yun Heung-gil completes decades-long project, ‘Tattoo’

Inspired by tradition of men getting tattoos before heading to front lines, Yun's epic delves into war and humanity during Japanese colonial period

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : March 3, 2024 - 16:29

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Novelist Yun Heung-gil speaks during a press conference in Jung-gu, Seoul, Tuesday. (Munhakdongne Publishing) Novelist Yun Heung-gil speaks during a press conference in Jung-gu, Seoul, Tuesday. (Munhakdongne Publishing)

Acclaimed South Korean novelist Yun Heung-gil has devoted over 25 years to writing his magnum opus, an epic saga titled “Tattoo” (“Munsin” in Korean).

The 82-year-old literary luminary revealed the arduous journey of completing the five-volume work during a press conference in Jung-gu, central Seoul, Tuesday, acknowledging that he "engaged in fierce battles" to a point where he thought he could die while writing.

“I was worried whether I would be able to finish the work properly because my health was deteriorating so much during the final stages of writing.”

The epic's publisher Munhak Donge hailed "Tattoo" as Yun's lifetime masterpiece, a sentiment the novelist agreed with.

"I agree with the expression because I have put all my effort and dedication into it," said Yun.

Beyond the health challenges, the novel faced several obstacles. The literary magazine that initially serialized the work in 1989 ceased publication, followed by the shutdown of the second magazine that had picked up the serialization. Although three volumes were published in 2018, it took another five years to complete the book due to Yun's deteriorating health.

"Tattoo" by Yun Heung-gil (Munhakdongne Publishing)

Yun attributed the inspiration for his epic endeavor to the late writer Pak Kyong-ni (1926-2008), who emphasized to Yun the importance of crafting a "big work.” Pak is best known for her epic saga “Toji (The Land),” a 16-volume work that tells the story of five generations of a wealthy Korean family from South Gyeongsang Province through the end of the Joseon Dynasty, Japanese occupation and independence.

“I first thought my ‘big work’ should be a large-scale project like ‘Toji.’ So I planned ‘Munsin’ as the first part of an epic, ‘Nat’ as the second, and a final part set in Sakhalin.”

But Pak told Yun that a "big work" does not necessarily mean a large-scale work, but something that explores humanity, life and society with affection and insight. Yun changed his course upon Pak's advice. “Nat,” set 30 years after the Korean War, delves into the trauma of society, the division and healing, and was published as a standalone novel in 2005.

Novelist Yun Heung-gil speaks during a press conference in Jung-gu, Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap) Novelist Yun Heung-gil speaks during a press conference in Jung-gu, Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Set in the Japanese colonial period, “Tattoo” is about the conflicting beliefs, desires and struggles of a family living through the challenging times of forced labor. The novel unfolds through various characters navigating the cruel and chaotic period, delving into themes of humanity and war.

The title "Tattoo" draws from the traditional practice of men tattooing their bodies before heading to war, symbolizing the desire to return to their families, which is the central motif of the story.

“(In my childhood), I often saw my older friends tattooing their names on their arms or shoulders before being sent to the frontlines (during the Korean War). At the time, I didn’t know what it was and later found out that it was part of soldiers’ tradition called ‘bubyeongjaja.’”

Yun added that he intended the book to be unkind to its readers.

He omitted sentence particles and altered the word order to mimic the rhythm of pansori, or traditional Korean narrative song. Dialogues are presented in the dialect of the Jeolla Provinces, adding another layer of complexity.

"Previously, I wrote my works considering readability. Now, with my age, I think I have a limited opportunity to write more work. So I decided to write unkindly. For me, it was a meaningful task, and I am happy about it because it became my distinctive style."

Completing a decades-long project, Yun emphasized the inseparable connection between his life and writing.

"I think I am a person whose life can be sustained only by writing. Every time I finish a work, the moment I write ‘The End’ at the end of the manuscript is the most exciting, most thrilling moment. That’s when my life is fulfilled."

While calling "Tattoo" his masterpiece, Yun sees it not as a conclusion but as part of a continuing journey.

“I do believe this work is my masterpiece, but it doesn’t end with that. I am 82 years old, but I am planning my next novel. Until that is published, ‘Munsin’ shall stand as the masterpiece of my lifetime.”

Yun's works include textbook staples such as “The Rainy Spell” (“Jangma” in Korean), “Armband” (“Wanjang”) and “The Man Who Was Left as Nine Pairs of Shoes.” His works have been published in English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Chinese and other languages.