Yi Kwangsu's The Heartless (Mujŏng, 1917) is Korea's first mature novel and its most celebrated text, on par with Natsume Soseki's Kokoro (1914) and Lu Xun's The True Story of Ah Q (1922). Its place in world literary studies, however, has often been obscured by the author's later collaboration with the colonial state. This article attempts a new, spatialized reading of the much-studied work to reconsider alterity (Japan-Korea, city-hometown) as a precondition of modernity itself. The ancient seat of the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910), Seoul in the 1910s was swiftly transforming into the minjok national capital and, simultaneously, a colonial city-within-empire. Competing identities of nation-versus-empire dominated its surfaces, veiling the processes of “coming up” (sanggyŏng 上京) to the capital from forgotten localities, as many writers associated with Seoul were actually from provinces with regional affinities. The Heartless—a paean to the enlightenment and to the Korean minjok—surprisingly reflects this dynamic, testifying to the “loss of hometown” by northwestern (Sŏbugin 西北人) writers like Yi Kwangsu, who regularly code-switched to their local dialects, as well as to the Japanese language.

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