Author: Ko Un
Hardcover | 12-vol. set
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About This Book
'Maninbo' Tells Narrative of Korean History
"Maninbo" consists of 4,001 poems describing 5,600 people who witnessed and shared moments in Korea’s modern history.
Poet Ko Un has finally completed "Maninbo" (Ten Thousand Lives), a 30-volume epic poem series, 25 years after he first began publishing the monumental work in 1986.
The 77-year-old initiated the landmark epic poem series when he was imprisoned in 1980 on false accusations of treason during a military coup. He decided to describe every person he had ever met in his life in the project.
After being freed from the prison in 1982, he began writing the poems and published the first volume in 1986.
Representing one of the major classics of 20th-century Korean literature, "Maninbo" consists of 4,001 poems describing 5,600 people who witnessed and shared moments in Korea's modern history.
His poems are an intensive historical narrative conjuring up a biographical mosaic of modern times in Korea chronologically. The poems begin with his childhood, and later explore various regional, social, historical and political scenarios seen through the eyes of individual Koreans.
The first six volumes portray his childhood hometown through various figures around him in a folksy and tasty language.
Then, the Nobel Prize contender shifts to the Korean War (1950-53), depicting the suffering of individuals under the extreme poverty in volumes seven to nine.
In volumes 10 to 15 published after a six-year hiatus, Ko talks about individuals living in the 1970s, including his friends who joined the democratic movement. He also describes figures such as former President Park Chung-hee as an "angry viper" and Kim Hyung-wook, former head of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency from 1963 to 1969 as "a pot-bellied man who is in no way stupid."
The poet then released volumes 16 to 20, which deal with people who experienced the colonial era, liberation and the Korean War.
In volumes 21 to 23, Ko portrays figures involved in the April 19 movement, which overthrew the autocratic government of Syngman Rhee in 1960, while volumes 24 to 26 touch upon the lives of Korean Buddhists and their faith.
He has finally ended his epic poem with the last four volumes by mostly recalling the victims of the Gwangju democratic movement that took place from May 18 to 27 in 1980. Citizens rose up against Chun Doo-hwan's military dictatorship and were brutally crushed by the military regime. The last publication also includes coverage of the late President Roh Moo-hyun and present-day literary and cultural figures.
Ko captures the traumatic scenes of Gwangju with poetic but realistic portrayals of the numerous innocent civilians -- from an ordinary housewife to a university student -- who were killed. It reveals the human brutality and violence without any reserve, serving as witness to the intolerable historical incident.
His poetic language has a powerful impact that enables readers to share the individual pain and loss from these historical incidents. His poetic motif includes not only people but also objects such as the nature. His 4,001 poems have individual stories but are eventually converged into a big picture with a grand historical narrative.
"I hope 'Maninbo' goes beyond just human beings and develops into the unification of human beings, nature and the universe," Ko said in a press conference last week. Also, the poet expressed his wish that his unique poetry would pioneer a new narrative genre on the world literature scene beyond the boundaries of poetry.
Ko's work has been translated into 15 other languages with a total of 30 translated volumes published worldwide so far, and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for the past few years.
American poet Robert Hass hailed "Maninbo" as "one of the most extraordinary projects in world literature."
Brother Anthony of Taize, better known as An Son-jae in Korea, writes about his masterpiece "Maninbo" in the U.S.-based magazine World Literature Today (WLT).
"The Maninbo poems can best be seen as an immense mosaic narrative of Korean history. Instead of conceiving history as dominated and directed by a few powerful figures, Ko Un insists that Korea's history is embodied and endured by its people as a whole, so that little children and poor old women are as significant as political leaders and famous public figures," An wrote.
An also appreciates the poet for breaking stereotypes and ideologies to pierce the very heart of matters time after time. "The scale of Ko's vision is so vast, his research for each life so complete, that the 30 volumes seem destined to become essential reading for any who want to know what really happened in recent Korean history," he said.
Ko was born in Gunsan, North Jeolla Province in 1933. He witnessed atrocities and violence during the Korean War and then became a Buddhist monk and released his first poems in 1950s in a Buddhist newspaper. In the 1960s, after having quit monastic life, he went through intense meditative agony.
In the 1970s, he fought for democracy and workers' rights, along with other dissidents. In 1980, when the Gwangju democratic movement took place, he was taken to a military prison along with other figures after being sentenced to 20 years in prison by a court martial. "Maninbo," began in the prison where he recalled all the people he had met in his life from poor to rich men and the unknown to the famous.
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