Yi Sang (1910-1937) was one of Korea’s most innovative writers of modern literature, enough to deem him Korea’s finest modernist. He died at the early age of 27, but despite his short literary career, he produced surreal and highly experimental pieces that were avant-garde and far ahead of their time. He showed brilliant literary prowess not only in poetry and fiction, but also in essays, exploring the confusion and anxiety of those living under Japanese colonial rule, the psychology and despair of uprooted urban dwellers, and the alienation, disquiet, and terror experienced by intellectuals, more than perhaps any other writer in Korean history. He did not shy away from presenting decadent subject matter, and experimented ceaselessly with form, created self-deprecating characters with excessive self-consciousness, portrayed the delirium of sensation, and employed wit, paradox, montage, and other various techniques all to brilliant, enigmatic effect, to the extent that his works resist easy comprehension even to this day. These are the reasons why he was heralded as a “modern boy,” who sprung onto the literary scene during Korea’s dark colonial period.
Yi Sang’s fiction is largely autobiographical. From his sole novel December 12 all the way to his short story “Dying Words,” Yi Sang has used his own life as material. However through his unique method of processing those experiences, in other words, through his unique artistic method of handling language, his work continues to be cutting-edge even today.
The dialogue between the protagonist who considers himself a skeptic and a cabaret worker, Eura, who says, “I always think I just want to die,” is the main storyline of this short story. This work effectively describes the desolate inner sentiments, feelings, and skepticism of the protagonist who travels to Harbin and the sorrowful sentimentality of the city. In addition, “Harbin” impressively portrays that the Second World War, which broke out in 1939, greatly influenced the city of Harbin, which was located in Northeast China at the time. This is evident especially in the lines describing the closed French and Dutch Consulates on Kitai Tverskaya, the main street of Harbin where Russian stores and Western style buildings are located. The theme of this work seems to be the sorrow of an intellect under colonization, feeling only fundamentally skeptical and depressed, even while conversing with a beautiful waitress at the exotic Harbin’s hotel, cabaret, and café where Tchaikovsky’s chamber music plays.