Sunday, April 21, 2013

Time travel: "Letters from Joseon"

Robert Neff is sick.

Don't get me wrong: he truly seems a good and decent man. I simply mean that he was feverish today. But this historian is so enthusiastic about his subject that he managed, in spite of that, to deliver a powerful and very entertaining lecture for the 10 Magazine Book Club. That's about his latest book: "Letters from Joseon - 19th Century Korea through the Eyes of an American Ambassador's Wife".

Robert Neff - Letters from Joseon
"Letters from Joseon" - Seoul Selection 2013
Robert Neff's previously wrote "Korea Through Western Eyes" and "Westerner's life in Joseon"

Robert Neff is sick.

Of reading about recurrent seasicknesses, rashes, or digestion troubles in John Mahelm Berry Sill's small family. Of decyphering this woman's scrawl. Of following John along pages and pages of dull descriptions of spiders and plants. But that's part of the job when you do your research on this kind of material: unfortunately, not all letters are written by Mark Twain or Jane Austen, and someone has to skim off the relevant bits, the hidden gems, and what is left unsaid to make it a pleasant journey for the readers. Mercifully, that's only part of the job, which certainly involves other painstaking processes, but also other rewarding moments. Also, that's a good alibi to look for and into more pictures of the past, and Robert Neff is a great collector of photos from late XIXth- early XXth Century Korea.

Robert Neff is sick.

Come to think of it, this man may have a twisted mind, after all: he does have a weakness for wicked characters. But no, that's totally normal. Put yourself into his shoes: you don't want to stay all the time with a tranquil constipated arachnophiliac stuck in his garden when there's a naughty gossiper, an incestuous felon, or a chain-beheader in the neighborhood! Not to mention "devils" at large (learn that Korean ponies are not as cute as they look). Beyond the story of an American Minister to Korea (1894-1897), there are tens of stories and portraits, hillarious anecdotes, new insights about Jeong-dong*, Seoul, Incheon-Chemulpo, Korea, King Gojong and Empress Myeongseong, the flight to the Russian Legation, and a dynasty on the verge of collapse.

Seoul Village 2013
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* reminded me of the recent expo Jeongdong 1900 at the Seoul Museum of History (see "A thousand villages, a thousand memories - Seoul Photo Festival 2012").

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