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Marrying the Madness of Prince Sado
[Book Review] 'The Red Queen' by Margaret Drabble
Jennifer Anne Waring (ethinie)     Print Article 
Published 2005-11-29 15:21 (KST)   
When Westerners think of Korea they usually think of the division between North and South Korea and "Oh, wasn't the World Cup held there once?" if you're lucky. The superpowers, Japan and China tend to draw people first. Poor little Korea, sandwiched in the middle, is often neglected. That was why it was such a pleasure to read Margaret Drabble's "The Red Queen" (2004).

The story of the 18th century Korean crown princess and her marriage at the age of 10 to the insane Prince Sado is a testimony to Korea's diverse and interesting culture. Based on the princess's original diaries, "The Red Queen" charts Prince Sado's descent into debauchery, murder and finally death. The Korean princess's tale culminates with Prince Sado's slow and torturous end, at the hands of his own father. Shakespeare himself would have struggled to invent a more dramatic and psychological grueling tale.

©2005 Harcourt
The crown princess's story is juxtaposed with the modern day story of Dr Barbara Halliwell, a medical professor, who happens to read the princess's diaries on her way to South Korea to speak at a conference. Inspired by the princess, Barbara's narrative continues the themes of insanity, gender and sickness. It moves between memories of her own suicidal ex-husband; her exploration of the princess's former palaces; modern day Seoul and a last minute love affair with a dying man.

As the narrative jumps from Oxford to Seoul to London to China, this intelligent and post-modern text manages to squeeze in evidence of almost all modern day literary theories. It therefore comes as no surprise to discover that Drabble is the editor of "The Oxford Companion to English Literature." Nevertheless, Drabble manages to successfully maintain the balance between a literary novel and a jolly good read. Her own interpretation of the crown princess's diaries delicately compliments the story rather than drowning it in pretentiousness.

By focusing on two parallel tales and interlinking them, Drabble brings the crown princess up to speed with the 20th century. Recreated as a ghost, the crown princess is able to posthumously comment on her own work and times from a modern and objective viewpoint.

This way of examining the text is both humorous and thought provoking. It also allows the reader to draw certain parallels between Korea and the Western world through the ages. For example, the Korean princess's treatment of women, space and illness calls to mind clear similarities between more recent writers such as the Brontes and even Virginia Woolf. It is truly amazing how modern and forward thinking the princess actually was. It also gives the Western reader a valuable link into Korean society.

Anyone who has visited South Korea or is interested in Asian culture will be fascinated to read Halliwell's perspective of Korean culture. Korea is interesting because it is a curious juxtaposition between the ancient and the modern. It is altogether less Westernized than neighboring Japan or China and this is an aspect of the country Drabble captures successfully.

Even if you never had any interest in Korea before, Drabble's light and humorous treatment of cultural differences is enough to make you at least fleetingly interested in the "hermit kingdom." One of the highlights of the book, for this writer at least, comes when Halliwell encounters the Korean toilet; she is certainly not the only one who has had trouble discerning exactly what all those little buttons do.

Drabble's text works well because it contains elements of everything. Its tragic narrative grips the reader and takes us on a journey between times and cultures. By shuttling backwards and forwards between countries and centuries the reader is given a new sense of how they are connected. "The Red Queen" cherry picks the best parts of two different countries literary heritage for a rich, dramatic and thoroughly engaging novel.
For those who are interested in reading the original diaries there are several translations available. One of these is "The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth Century Korea" (1996, paperback) by Hyegyonggung Hong Ssi, Jahyun Kim Haboush
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Jennifer Anne Waring

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