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March/April 2018
 
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The Cloud Dream of the Nine, by Kim Man-Choong (1922)

The introduction to this translation of a seventeenth-century Korean fantasy set in ninth-century China calls it "the most moving romance of polygamy ever written." It may well be that, but this richly ornamented yet compelling fantasy also takes the most clichéd ending (waking up from a dream), reinvigorates it, and advertises the surprise ending in its title.

Maybe that's in keeping for a novel about the unreliability of appearances. The author, an eminent Confucian, was also rooted in Buddhist tradition, with its profound distrust of the senses. That theme is echoed in the conventions, ironies, and artful evasions of the novel's aristocratic conversations. The story begins when Song-jin, a young Buddhist monk, beholds eight beautiful maidens (fairies, actually), dallies with them, then is punished by his Master with death, hell, and reincarnation in a lowly status as Yang. That's chapter one.

Up into the last chapter we follow Yang's arduous rise to an eminence just below that of the emperor. But the real, if discreetly and mischievously hidden, agents of his rise are the eight women—reincarnations of the original fairies—who gradually join his connubial household thanks to their tricks, impersonations, and magical transformations.

In the last chapter, General Yang, now an old man, retires to a monastery. There he meets his original Master, who restores his Song-jin identity. The Master tells him that his lifetime as Yang was a dream lasting a few minutes and cautions him that Song-jin is also a dream. But it's one hell of a dream.

A new translation by Heinz Insu Fenkl will be published this year as The Nine Cloud Dream by Kim Man-jung, but James S. Gale's 1922 work is still a good read.

—Robert Eldridge

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