by Kim Kyung Ju
Kim Kyung Ju’s allegorical drama Butterfly Sleep refracts a critique of South Korea’s headlong development through a mixture of magic realism and absurdist dark humor set early in the Joseon dynasty. With lyricism and grace, Kim unfolds a lesson of consolation by confrontation, and finally reconciliation, with the ghosts of the nation.
Published: November 2019
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KIM KYUNG JU’s Butterfly Sleep is a historical drama based in the early period of the Joseon dynasty. He relies on a mixture of absurdism, magic realism, and dark humor in order to tell an existentialist allegory of Korea’s rapid development. In this sense, Butterfly Sleep is a story about the fractured soul of the nation. Even more so, it is a lesson in consolation. As Butterfly Sleep unfolds, we drift in and out of song, as music is made in order to comfort the characters in the play. With lyricism and grace, Kim suggests that the only way the ghosts of the nation can be consoled is through direct confrontation. Confront them first, then sing them a lullaby.
The high priest appears. The astronomer follows him.
The Buddhist monk stands still with the rock on top of his head.
High priest: You must keep the rock on your head even when you rest.
Buddhist monk: I always carry a rock on my head. (Laughing) I pass through this world as if falling asleep with a rock on my head.
The high priest pours some water into the monk’s mouth.
High priest: Why have you come back? Didn’t you forsake the world?
Buddhist monk: Wasn’t it you who swore off the world, switching your robes?
High priest: I changed my fate.
Astronomer: Ha ha, you both make me laugh. I remember you two very clearly. One was a butcher, the other a beggar. Even if the world changes, you are who you are. You can’t fool me.
Buddhist monk: My friend, weren’t you the guy that threw me the leftover meat from the slaughter?
High priest: After the slaughter, I always give meat to those who are less than human.
Buddhist monk: (Laughing) Yep, that’s exactly how we were. (Looking at the astronomer) But who is this weird looking fellow?
High priest: Don’t worry about him. He’s the kind of person that performs a memorial service for his shadow when life isn’t going his way. A poor public official who occasionally earns some pocket money by drawing pictures of seafood on the soles of people’s feet, telling them it will prevent misfortune.
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“Kim leaves his readers with a sense that there are bigger, more permanent things than people.” — Publisher’s Weekly
“Kim Kyung Ju writes with a wholly singular, libidinal poetic.” — Jordan Tannahill
“Kim’s book stands as a two-fold project of resuscitation, at once linguistic and existential: to breathe poetry back into language, and meaning back into life.” — Loren Goodman, Korean Literature Now
“Jake Levine is a firesteed. Traditionally, a particularly marvelous horse was said, py poets, to have ‘bones of flame.’” — Charles Alexander, Editor and Poet