‘Highway with Green Apples’ & ‘Nowhere to be Found’ by Bae Suah (Review)

nowhereBae Suah is a Korean writer who has attracted a lot of attention recently, surprisingly so for a writer who really hasn’t had a lot of her work translated into English so far (of course, this may just be the company I keep on Twitter and Facebook…).  Last year, she was writer in residence at the Writer’s Centre attached to the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and she has another connection to UEA, having translated a couple of W.G. Sebald books into Korean.  As mentioned, there haven’t been many opportunities so far for Anglophones to sample her work, but a couple of recent publications have changed that, two novellas which definitely have me eager to try more.

The two pieces are courtesy of Amazon Crossing, both translated by Sora Kim-Russell.  The first is an upcoming release, Nowhere to Be Found, a novella about a young woman trapped in a depressing family environment; the second is a shorter story which was released last year, Highway with Green Apples, one in which the protagonist has managed to shrug off some of the shackles around her.  They’re both excellent stories and make for a great introduction to Bae’s work.

In Nowhere to be Found (review copy received through NetGalley), we see a young woman supporting her poor family through short-term, badly paid jobs.  Her mother is an alcoholic, her elder brother a labourer scratching around for the next shift, and her younger sister is trying to get through school as best she can.  Twenty-four and exhausted, the elder sister is caught in a situation she can’t get out of, and the reappearance of Cheolsu, a young man she knows from her school days might not be the break she was expecting.

The tale unfolds in a plain style for the most part, the story of a dull, crushing life unlikely to improve any time soon.  However, there’s a sudden switch in pace half-way through, a few pages which suddenly sear through the woman’s grey, everyday life:

“Rain falls inside the dark abandoned house.  It streams down the walls of the kitchen and front door like a waterfall.  Burn me.  Pour gasoline over me and set my body on fire.  Burn me at the stake like a witch.  Wrap me in garbage bags and toss me in the incinerator.  I’ll turn into dioxin and make my way into your lungs.  Stroke my face lightly with a razor blade and suck the blood that comes seeping out.  Lap it up like a cat.  I want to be covered in blood.  I’ll cry out in the end and weep for fear of leaving this world without ever once discovering the me inside me, the ugly something inside me.”
(Amazon Crossing, 2015)

It’s a scene that rocks the reader, a bolt from the blue – and it only really makes sense towards the end of the story.  When life is closing you in, it’s up to you to find your own release, no matter how dark others might find it.

Highway with Green Apples is another story of a twenty-something, with a woman about to turn twenty five taking a road trip with a boyfriend, a man who is very soon to move on from her.  The woman has run away from her family, sick of being the dutiful daughter and sister, but having escaped domestic drudgery, she’s not sure what’s supposed to happen next.

It’s a great story, an examination of the role of young women in Korean society, and it packs a lot into a relatively short space, allowing us to contrast the life the woman leads now with the patriarchal situation she has left behind:

“The sound of the nail clippers must have annoyed my brother, because he stuck his head out the door and yelled at me to be quiet.  My mother, who felt nothing for my father, discovered the glass I’d broken while doing the dishes and scolded me from inside the kitchen, as if she’d finally found the proper outlet for her frustration.  Crickets chirped in the corner of the yard. I asked myself over and over, When will I ever get out of here?
(Amazon Crossing, 2014)

I’ve read a lot of books which focus on Korean families, but many concentrate on the father or (more often) the mother.  This one looks at things from the view of the daughter, the dogsbody for the rest of the family, pushed around by a lazy brother and a resentful mother.  In the frustration of the home environment, people react in different ways, and the choices people make lead them to very different futures.

One aspect of Highway with Green Apples I loved was the structure of the story, with a mix of Apples 2time strands taking the reader back and forth in time, but gently, with the various scenes almost melting into one another.  There’s a strong focus on memories and nostalgia, with some beautiful descriptive writing evoking the times described: the smell of the apples bringing back the road trip; the snowy impromptu get-together in the dark; the childhood photo on a hot day, blinding light, heat and sweat.  There are hints here of (dare I say it?) Murakami at his simplest and most evocative in these scenes.

The two stories have obvious similarities, with both looking at the role of young women in Korean Society, where there’s a strong focus on family.  It’s a country where you either fit in or are made to fit in, and the age of the protagonists, one of uncertainty, adds to the feeling of torment and struggle, a time where a tipping point has been reached:

“I am one week away from my twenty-fifth birthday.  I hate being that age.  That age is neither as fresh and full of life as fifteen years nor as jaded as the afternoon of thirty-five years.  I never know what the next day will bring, so I am always uneasy.”
(Highway with Green Apples)

In both stories, the main character has choices to make, and the differences are in the way the two women decide to approach their dilemma.  Both are well written and translated, with great work by Kim-Russell, but I preferred Highway with Green Apples because of the elegant style and handling of the time periods.  However, as Nowhere to Be Found is, perhaps, a more coherent tale, some may disagree – see what you think ;)

These two stories make a nice start, but this is a writer who has been working for twenty years (Highway with Green Apples came out in 1995, and Nowhere to Be Found appeared three years later).  In 2001, Bae moved to Germany to learn the language and broaden her horizons,  and she is now a Sebald Translator.  I suspect that her more recent work might be a little more sophisticated, and it’s frustrating that there isn’t the opportunity to find that out at the moment.

So, is there anything else out there?  There’s a story available in English, Time in Gray, one of the Asia Publishers Bilingual Modern Korean Literature series, and I’ve heard that there are two novels in the pipeline.  Both have been translated by Deborah Smith (of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian fame), The Essayists Desk and The Low Hills of Seoul, and there’s an extract of the second book over at Two Lines Press.  These two should(!) be out in 2016, and it’s about time.  Bae Suah is a writer whose work many people will enjoy – if they get to read it :)

‘The Buried Giant’ by Kazuo Ishiguro (Review)

While there hasn’t been a lot by KIMG_5167azuo Ishiguro reviewed on the blog thus far, he’s actually one of my favourite English-language writers, and I’ve read all of his works several times (I just have to acquire one of his books to complete my personal collection).  I was very happy, then, to receive an unexpected parcel a few weeks ago, a lovely ARC of his latest novel, courtesy of the Australian distributors Allen & Unwin.  Ten years in the making, it’s a novel many people have been waiting for; however, it might be just a little different to what they were expecting.

The Buried Giant is set in England during the Dark Ages – the Romans have long gone, and there is a time of relative peace after bloody battles between the Briton and Saxon peoples.  In a peaceful hillside village, an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, are spending their twilight years helping out as best they can, living on the edge of the small community.  One day, however, they decide that there’s something they must do before time runs out:

“You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know.  But it’s time now to think on it anew.  There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay.”
     “A journey, princess?  What sort of journey?”
     “A journey to our son’s village.  It’s not far, husband, we know that.  Even with our slow steps, it’s a few days’ walk at most, a little way east beyond the Great Plain.  And the spring will soon be upon us.”
p.19 (Faber & Faber, 2015)

A short time later, the couple pack some supplies and set off on their journey, one which both know might be their last.

However, the trip isn’t quite as straight-forward as you’d imagine.  These are different times, and with navigation a matter of experience, luck and hope, finding their way is no easy task.  Even if they find the right path, there are dangers on all sides, from hostile natives, wild animals and slightly more supernatural foes.  In addition, there’s the small matter of not really knowing where they’re going…  You see, in these dark times, a mist has descended across the land, one which affects people’s memory of the past.  The truth is that the couple have no real idea where their son left the village for – or why.

Delving into the past isn’t exactly new for Ishiguro, with some of his most successful novels (The Remains of the Day, When We Were Orphans) set many years ago, but it’s safe to say that The Buried Giant takes that just a little bit further.  It’s a time of legend and superstition, and this allows the writer to introduce a mix of gritty realism and myth, his characters fearing both the effects of a nasty scratch in an age of poor health care and the ogres who are known to roam the countryside.  The novel swings between historical fiction and fantasy, making for an intriguing read.

Ishiguro is also well known for his unreliable narrators, and while this one slips in and out of the story, he’s an important aspect of the novel.  He’s an avuncular, first-person story-teller, a compelling voice telling us of the dangers the elderly couple face, and the language used (here and throughout the novel) is reminiscent of the style found in old versions of Arthurian legends – nineteenth-century representations of older language, perhaps.  Who is this narrator?  Well, you won’t find that out for a while, and even then we’re not exactly sure of his real identity.

But then, that’s true for more than just the narrator.  Several of the main characters have a fascinating story to tell, or be told, if only they can remember it.  Confounded by the magical mist which prevents memories from burdening the living, Beatrice and Axl don’t remember too much about their early years together, and as the novel progresses, it’s not just the reader that gains valuable insights into their character and history:

“Edwin appeared to comprehend the soldier’s wishes, if not his actual words, for he left the mare and came to join Wistan.  As he did so, the soldier adjusted slightly the position of his horse.  Axl, noticing this, understood immediately that the soldier was maintaining a particular angle and distance between himself and his charges that would give him the greatest advantage in the event of sudden conflict.” (p.122)

That’s quite an observation for a simple village farm helper – there’s obviously more to Mister Axl than meets the eye.

The bigger picture behind the memory issue is the question of whether it’s better to forget the past or confront it head on, and Ishiguro uses his allegorical setting to explore the question in detail.  The first situation is that of Beatrice and Axl, a couple scared of having forgotten their shared history.  They’re eager to recover their memories, but as the pictures begin to return, they realise that there are bound to be some unpleasant images emerging from the depths of the past.  In their search for the truth, they might actually be driven apart.

However, there’s also a much wider issue involved, and that is one of societies forgetting history to better confront the challenges of the future.  While the reader is desperate to know what’s spreading the mist, a far more important question is why it’s been created.  There’s good reason for the national curse of forgetfulness, and it concerns the recent wars (and the scars they’ve left).  As the Saxon warrior Wistan explains to Axl, when relating the behaviour of his race during a siege:

“In other words, Master Axl, it’s vengeance to be relished in advance by those not able to take it in its proper place.  That’s why I say, sir, my Saxon cousins would have stood here to cheer and clap, and the more cruel the death, the more merry they would have been.” (p.155)

Axl is loath to accept the truth of these words, but the more he remembers, the more difficult it becomes to dispute Wistan’s logic.  If the mist is finally dispersed, will the country be able to move on, or will the shadows of the past return to haunt it?

The Buried Giant is an enjoyable novel, thought-provoking and clever with a wonderful narratorial voice.  It’s an interesting take on a little-known period of English history, putting a new spin on some very famous tales.  There’s a risk in setting a modern novel in this period, and some critics might wonder what  it adds to the novel, and why his themes had to be handled in this way – I suspect some will consider it unnecessary.  However, with a central idea of uncertainty, the magical surrounds suit the story and its handling.

Unlike with some of the more obscure titles I look at, my little review is unlikely to sway most readers.  Ishiguro is a big name, and I’m sure this novel will sell by the bucketload in any case.  Nevertheless, I’m happy to add my seal of approval, and The Buried Giant will sit happily with the other Ishiguro works on my shelves.  In fact, it might just be time to get around to buying A Pale View of Hills to complete the collection.  Excuse me while I go and look for my credit card…

‘Eyrie’ by Tim Winton (Review)

IMG_5174While I’ve been spending most of my reading time over the past few weeks on the ARCs which piled up during German Literature Month and January in Japan, there have been other demands on my reading time.  One book I’ve been meaning to get to for a while is a present I got for my birthday last year, an Australian novel from a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past, given to me by a little girl who keeps wondering why I haven’t got around to reading her present yet.  Consider this my attempt to keep the peace on the home front – and read a novel originally written in English for the first time in a good while, too.

Eyrie, longlisted for last year’s Miles Franklin Award, is the latest novel from the Western-Australian writer Tim Winton.  We begin one morning in a flat high up in the Fremantle sky as Tommy Keely, a middle-aged former environmental lawyer, crawls out of bed into a crushingly hot morning.  With a headache that could fell an elephant (and a huge unexplained wet patch on the living room carpet), it’s clear from the onset that this is a man with some very big issues, worries which have driven him to retreat to his eyrie far above the rest of the city.

Even in a place like this, though, it’s hard to escape your past, and when he bumps into a neighbour, a woman he knew during his childhood, the first step is taken towards reconnecting with society.  Gemma has her own reasons for living at the top of this tower, and one of them is her grandson, Kai, a quiet boy with some unusual traits.  Keely is drawn to Gemma and becomes increasingly close to the boy too; however, he’s soon to discover that getting mixed up in other people’s affairs is a very dangerous business indeed.

Winton is one of the most famous and successful contemporary Australian writers, having won the Miles Franklin Award on four occasions, and this is the work of a writer with his own style and themes, unconcerned with writing for an audience.  From the first page, he plunges into his setting, the complex part-gritty, part-gentrified town of Fremantle, just down the road from the glittering, mining-money-dependent city of Perth (or ‘Dullsville’, as it is called several times…):

“Port of Fremantle, gateway to the booming state of Western Australia.  Which was, you could say, like Texas.  Only it was big.  Not to mention thin-skinned.  And rich beyond dreaming.  The greatest ore deposit in the world.  The nation’s quarry.  China’s swaggering enabler.  A philistine giant eager to pass off its good fortune as virtue, quick to explain its shortcomings as east-coast conspiracies, always at the point of seceding from the Federation.  Leviathan with an irritable bowel.”
p.5 (Penguin, 2014)

As any Australian will know, it’s a region awash with money.  Which, of course, is not to say that it’s equally distributed, or that its origins are completely legitimate.

One strand of the book looks at Keely himself, a man with strong beliefs (inherited from his larger-than-life father) which have brought him to his knees.  In an era of  climate-change denial and mining domination, he is a relic, fighting the good fight on behalf of people and birds alike – until, that is, a fatal misjudgement leaves him abandoned and unemployable.  There are definite shades here of the struggle between human warmth and neoliberalism portrayed in another modern Australian novel, Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, a book which also details the futility of individuals struggling against ‘progress’.

In truth, though, this forms the background of the novel; the main action concerns Keely’s growing relationship with Gemma and Kai.  She’s a few years younger than Keely, taken in by his parents when she was young in an attempt to save her from the worst effects of her parents’ disastrous relationship, and Keely repeats his parents’ gesture (or error) in wanting to help:

“You’re trying to do the right thing, I know.  It’s how we raised you, the both of you.  But you save yourself first Tom.  That’s something I do know, it’s what I’ve learnt.  You save yourself, then you look to the others.” (p.289)

His mother’s words are well-meant (and prescient), but it’s too little, too late.  Keely is already in well over his head, and his only choice is to sort out Gemma’s issues or go under – for good.

Eyrie is a great read, a very Australian book with a swaggering tone and an umistakeable style, making the reader feel they’ve stepped out (with Keely) into a blistering Westralian summer:

“It was hot enough to kill an asbestos sparrow.  The concrete forecourt livid, the street branding, blinding, breath-sucking.  Acid light plashed white underfoot, swashing wall to wall, window upon window, and he waded in it a moment tilting spastic and helpless, so suddenly porous and chalky it was all behind his eyes in an instant, fizzing within his skull until it rendered everything outside him in flashes and flickers.  No gentling tones out here, only abyssal shadows or colours so saturated they looked carcinogenic.” (pp.14/5)

The language is frequently aggressive and metaphor laden, reflecting Keely’s sensitivity to the pain in his head, and the writing is saturated with Australianisms.  As a reader of translated fiction, I do wonder how the British (or even American…) version reads – I’d be surprised if all of the local expressions made the cut.

I greatly enjoyed Eyrie, but I wouldn’t say that it’s my favourite Winton book (The Riders is usually the one I recommend, although Cloudstreet is regarded as his ‘classic’).  The ideas are rather familiar (a man raging against society, a lower-class woman with a heart of gold etc), and there are too many strands floating about which are never really brought together.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I just felt that the ending was a little unsatisfying because of the lack of (for want of a better word) ‘closure’.  What is Kai’s story?  What is up with Keely’s headaches?  What did happen with his sister?  Withholding information from the reader is all well and good, but you can take it a little too far.

Still, I’m probably being a little unfair here.  I raced through Eyrie in a few days, and it’s a book I’d definitely recommend, a great story about the iniquities of contemporary Australia, covering everything from mining to gentrification, banking to prison spells – it only needs a subplot with a dumb Prime Minister locking kids in detention centres offshore to cover the whole gamut of Aussie themes.  If you want to see what life’s like in Freo today, give it a try.  Just don’t forget to take your sunglasses and slap on some sunscreen – it’s bloody hot…

‘My Clint Eastwood’ by Oh Han-ki (Review)

IMG_5175Last year, I had a look at two of the first five books in Asia Publishers’ new K-Fiction series, small books with writing from the new wave of Korean writers.  While both of those stories (Dinner with Buffett and Arpan) had a very different approach to the usual inwardly focused Korean fiction, today’s review looks at a book which is even more unKorean in its style.  The question, then, for the vacillating reader out there, unwilling to commit to trying the book, is this: do you feel lucky?  Well, do ya, punk?

Oh Han-ki’s My Clint Eastwood (translated by Jeon Sung-hee, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is narrated by a young Korean man with ambitions of becoming a film scriptwriter.  After his uncle falls ill, the man ends up running an isolated guesthouse, taking care of the few guests who turn up, cleaning the small reservoir nearby and watching films when he gets bored.  That is until one day a rather familiar face shows up at the reception desk:

“Do you have a room?” he asked in his characteristic raspy voice.  Then he smiled vaguely as if acknowledging that he knew that I recognized him.
p.19 (Asia Publishers, 2014)

The unexpected guest is none other than Clint Eastwood himself – now that’s not something that happens every day…

However, this is not the Eastwood of cinematic memory – the super-macho detective/cowboy has gone, leaving a dull old man in his wake, and the writer is deeply disappointed with his screen hero.  After a while, the actor moves on, and the writer takes a trip to Texas in the hope of rediscovering the golden era of Westerns.  While the past is a different country, though, it’s not one you can fly to from Seoul, and the writer soon learns that the world has moved on, perhaps for good.

The set-up for My Clint Eastwood is an entertaining one, a bizarre mix of reflections on the world of movies and Dirty Harry fan-fiction.  Much of the humour comes from the disappointment the writer feels when he encounters Eastwood in the flesh, an ugly old man prone to carrying an unloaded gun around (and to asking for a glass of milk all the time).  While you suspect that it may all be in the writer’s head, it’s fun just the same.

Oh’s Clint Eastwood is a babbling, delusional old man whose best days are behind him.  He seems not to realise that nobody cares where he’s hiding out and believes he’s doing the writer a favour by chatting to him every day.  Nothing could be further from the truth:

“Nevertheless, I couldn’t stand Clint Eastwood.  I had lost my solitary time of watching movies since he’d arrived in the guesthouse.  He frequented my office as he pleased, and spoke ill of actors while I watched movies.  According to him, Dustin Hoffman was an Italian country bumpkin who only knew about tomato sauce; half of Alain Delon’s fans were gay; Paul Newman was shameless and had no basic ethical values; and Al Pacino and Robert De Niro were too young to even compare to himself.” (p.37)

It’s as much as the writer can do to pour the old man a glass of milk and send him on his way.

In truth, though, the writer isn’t quite as dismissive as he seems.  On some level, he wants to believe in the man who used to dominate the big screen, carefully sounding out his friends and family on their opinion of the actor.  Even when he finds that Eastwood is just another faded star, he makes a trip to Texas hoping to prove the opposite.  Has the Texas of the Westerns really disappeared?  Will Eastwood really be in a bar somewhere?  Read on, and you’ll find out.

There’s a lot to like about the story and more to read into it than just a comical skit which uses a famous name for effect.  The writer is struggling with the complexity of modern life, echoed in the sophisticated films his friends recommend he watch.  He yearns for the days of the Western, a simpler, dirtier, riskier time, where morals and actions were black and white.  In an era where cowboys seem to have died out, it’s become more difficult to find something worth fighting for, or against.

Interestingly, while there are several other obvious themes here, such as the contrast between a screen hero and the flawed human who portrays them, the extra sections at the end of the book, from both the writer and a literary critic, don’t really touch upon them.  These sections are very descriptive and don’t really add a lot to the story, which is a shame as other books in the series have given extra insight into the writing.

I’d also have to say that My Clint Eastwood occasionally reads as if it were written for an audience that didn’t really know that much about the central character.  For Westerners (especially those of us of a certain vintage), Eastwood is still a powerful, iconic figure, whatever you might think of his political views, and it’s hard to see him in the same way Oh’s characters do.  Using his name might attract readers to the book, but I’m not sure it’s written in a way that Anglophone readers will appreciate fully.

Still, it’s all good fun, and there are worse ways to spend your evening than reading about Clint Eastwood, a bottle of whisky, a big steak and a hooker…  And while My Clint Eastwood doesn’t always hit the heights it promises, I can say one thing.  Like all good films, the ending hits just the right note ;)

‘The Heart of Man’ by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Review)

IMG_5168One of the main joys of reading fiction in translation is stumbling across a wonderful writer, an author whose work deserves to be read as widely as possible, and one of my favourite ‘discoveries’ of the past few years has been Jón Kalman Stefánsson, a well-regarded Icelandic novelist whose work is only slowly appearing in English.  Both Heaven and Hell and its sequel, The Sorrow of Angels, were well received, and with the final book in the trilogy about to appear, here’s hoping that more readers will discover his work :)  A word of warning before I begin – being a review of the third part of a trilogy, this post will undoubtedly reveal details from the first two books that you may not wish to know,  If that’s the case, then look away now.

The Heart of Man (translated by Philip Roughton, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) takes up the story a matter of hours after the dramatic denouement of The Sorrow of Angels.  The boy awakens to find himself safe and sound in a warm bed, with no lasting effects from the unexpected slide down the mountainside – Jens, while not quite as fortunate, also comes through the experience relatively unscathed (which is more than can be said for their poor companion…).  Never one to remain quiet for long, the boy sets off to explore the household and the surrounding area, soon encountering those things he always seems destined to find – poetry and a beautiful young woman.

This opening passage is merely an interlude, however, and the boy and the burly postman soon set sail for the village, returning as the first tentative signs of spring are beginning to make themselves felt.  With the return of the sun, life’s pace begins to quicken, and not always in a good way.  The economic leaders of the village once more turn their attention to the boy’s patron, Geirþrúður, working out how to put the woman in her place, once and for all.  As for the boy, he has a choice to make – having been captivated by the red hair and green eyes of Álfheiður, will he succumb once more to the haughty charms of the high-born Ragnheiður?  The heart of man is a complex thing, indeed.

Right from the start, it’s a pleasure to be back in the hands of JKS, a writer with an eye for words and a translator who knows how to put them into English:

“Sorry, says the boy, still startled by her arrival, good day, he adds.  Are you certain it’s so good? says the woman, stepping out from behind the counter…”
p.40 (MacLehose Press, 2015)

Just as is the case in the first two books in the trilogy, The Heart of Man is full of cutting observations, dry one-liners and unexpected metaphors, stopping the reader from drifting along lazily.  It’s almost as if the boy’s passion for reading has left him unable to see the world in an ordinary fashion:

“Again the boy gets up carefully from the bed, his legs carry him, but they’re in poor shape, have aged considerably, the right one by a few decades probably.” (p.14)

In a land of taciturn, hard-working folk, the quick-minded boy lights up everyone he meets.  It’s a pleasure for the reader to slip back into the sparkling prose encountered in the previous books.

One way in which The Heart of Man differs from the first two books in the series, though, is that it is far more expansive in terms of plot and scope.  Where Heaven and Hell merely set up the premise, introducing the boy and the misfits of the village, and The Sorrow of Angels was one long battle between man and nature, the third part of the trilogy takes place over the space of several months and brings together the various themes and ideas introduced previously.

The main strand running through the book is the struggle Geirþrúður is forced to wage against the rich businessmen in control of this area of the country.  Having developed a quasi-monopoly on both business and moral behaviour, the behaviour of a very independent woman threatens them financially, but also sets what they consider to be a bad example for the drones they rely on as the basis of their fortunes.  This is a harsh land, one where pleasure is fleeting:

How is it possible to survive in a country where the redeeming spring kills the vulnerable?  Where the dark, long winter lies like a dead weight on people’s dispositions and the brilliant summer so often brings disappointment; who survives such things?  Durable people, assiduous, sometimes soft with self-pity and given to selfishness, but to strong dreams, as well? (pp.46/7)

The region’s de facto rulers believe in a harsh, strict life, with no room for frivolity (for the workers, at least…).  As we learned in Heaven and Hell, distraction may have very serious consequences.

Yet human nature will always reveal itself, and the boy is the catalyst who will bring forth the green shoots of humanity from the ordinary people in the village.  As the spring tentatively emerges from the long, cold winter, the villagers begin to want more, and this is the second main theme of The Heart of Man – the heart itself.  Part of the advantage of the wider scope of the novel is that it allows the writer to introduce more characters and to follow their fumbling, often inept, attempts at finding a partner to share those dreary winter nights.  Jens the postman, Helga the Amazonian waitress, Andrea the fisherman’s wife, Oddur the snow sweeper and harbour hand – all of them have a special someone out there just waiting for them.

As always, the boy is at the centre of it all, and he has his own amorous dilemmas.  Once back in the village, the flirtation with the rich (and most definitely out of bounds) Ragnheiður continues, but he’s unable to forget the quirky, unreadable Álfheiður:

“It’s a fact that the human heart has two chambers, which is why it’s possible to love two people at the same time.  Biology makes it possible, demands it, some would say, but our consciences, consciousness, tell us a different story, which can make everyday life unbearably burdensome.” (p.77)

This is the origin of the title, the (supposed) biological make-up of the most vital of organs, throwing human minds and emotions into disarray.  The boy has a decision to make, unless, that is, someone else makes it for him.

Once again, Stefánsson has used his creation, the boy (whose name we are never permitted to know) to examine the big picture of human life and emotions, to explore the importance of love, life, poetry and coffee(!) in a world where some are determined to reduce everything to the level of economics and moral duty.  Despite the fate of the poor fisherman in Heaven and Hell, the writer continually points to the importance of words in helping to change people’s lives, with books, letters and even blank pieces of paper bringing joy to all who stumble across them.  It’s tempting, whether correct or not, to draw parallels with Iceland’s recent history.  You have to wonder whether Stefánsson’s ghostly narrators are frowning at the country’s banking-led collapse during the Global Financial Crisis – and whether Geirþrúður is a representative of the more human, ‘female’ approach that led the Icelanders out of it.

If you haven’t read the first two books on the series, I’d advise you to do so, but that doesn’t mean that The Heart of Man can’t be read on its own.  It’s just that the book has many layers which will only really be accessible to those who have accompanied the boy over sea and land (and through miles and miles of snow).  I loved it, and I’m very happy that JKS, MacLehose and, of course, the wonderful Philip Roughton, saw fit to allow us Anglophones to experience the boy’s adventures.  And speaking of translations, let’s allow the writer to have the last word, on that very subject:

“Translations, Gísli had said, it’s hardly possible to describe their importance.  They enrich and broaden us, help us to understand the world better, understand ourselves.  A nation that translates little, focusing only on its own thoughts, is constricted, and if it boasts a large population it becomes dangerous to others, as well, because most things are alien to it except for its own thoughts and customs.  Translations broaden people and thereby the world.” (p.163)

‘Angry in Piraeus’ by Maureen Freely (Review)

IMG_5166In addition to reading fiction in translation, I quite enjoy hearing from the people involved in the field, and The Cahier Series, the collection of beautiful coffee-table works published by Sylph Editions and the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris, is a wonderful source of short, thought-provoking texts on language.  The latest addition to the series is by a woman with a rather high profile, someone with a foot in the camps of both writing and translating – and, as you’ll see, this isn’t the only area where she straddles the divide between two worlds.

Maureen Freely is an American-born writer, academic and translator, and is currently the President of English PEN.  For many readers, though, she’s probably better known as one of the main translators of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.  Freely, having grown up in Turkey, has her own story, however, one that is similar to, but different from, those spun by Pamuk in his novels, and Angry in Piraeus (review copy courtesy of the publisher) allows her to explore her childhood and her thoughts on language, life and literature.

The work begins by taking us into the worlds of some of the authors Freely has translated, showing us brief scenes of Turkish life, before dragging us out to confront the reality of bringing these images into the English language.  With Turkish having a very different structure, being an agglutinative language without the rigid emphasis on sentence structure and gender-specific third-person pronouns of her native tongue, Freely must be inventive to preserve the essence of the original – and it’s exactly this that she considers most important:

“I have to listen to the language of the original and look for the English words which might ride their echo.  As important as it is for those words to convey the right meaning, what matters more is how they sound, how they look.  I need to know their shape, their weight, their texture and temperature.  I need to play them like instruments, until I find the orchestral voice that can tell the story, which, before that point, I more feel than understand.”
p.14 (Sylph Editions, 2014)

I hope you’ll agree, Google Translate it is not.

While a lot is said about the art of translation, there is plenty here about the writer’s own life too.  Growing up in an alien culture, having moved to Turkey at the age of eight, Freely learned her Turkish organically on the streets, paying more attention to the feel and sound of the language than the importance of verb tenses.  Angry in Piraeus allows us to wander with her through the streets of Istanbul, the journeys through the old laneways compared to the mental journeys taken through her writers’ creations in her later translation career.

Of course, the name that dominates that career is Pamuk, an acquaintance of Freely’s since her younger years.  The chance call to help out with the translation of Snow was the start of a long collaboration, one which allowed her both to become a renowned translator and to get inside the Turkish characters she had been trying (and failing) to insert into her own fiction.  Working with a friend on such wonderful novels seems like a great way to make a living.

However, it wasn’t all good…  Perhaps the most interesting part of Angry in Piraeus (and one I, rather selfishly, would have liked to hear more about) was when Freely discussed the problems arising from her partnership with the Turkish writer.  The back-and-forth of the translation process certainly seemed to be a rather arduous process, and there was a sense that both writer and translator were relieved once they had moved on.  Of course, this was nothing compared to the dramas of the court cases against Pamuk in Turkey, with public opinion firmly against the ‘betrayer of the nation’ – and his ‘manipulative’ American translator.

Still, the focus of Angry in Piraeus eventually returns to translation itself, and it’s a topic well worth discussing.  Freely transmits the joy she feels in her craft and the deep involvement the translator has with the source text:

“Translating is for me the slowest, deepest, and most intimate form of reading: closer than close reading.  I sometimes think of it as immersed reading.” (p.32)

After the difficulties of negotiating with writers (and being a figure in the public eye, for all the wrong reasons), you sense that Freely is happiest immersed in a nice, warm book.

For all her translation prowess, Freely is also a writer in her own right, and it shows.  Angry in Piraeus is a beautiful, elegant piece, an extended essay on translation, language and culture which is a delight to read.  In the usual Cahier manner, the text is supplemented by illustrations, a series of works by Rie Iwatake.  I must confess that I didn’t really think the mixture of letters, stamps and sketches of the human body really added much to the text here (in contrast with, say, the Max Neumann-László Krasznahorkai collaboration for animalinside), but then art isn’t really my speciality…  Still, this is a short work which is well worth reading (and rereading) and a warning to all who think that translation sounds like  a nice, easy way to make a living: whether in the midst of the text or out in the real world, there are more obstacles waiting to trip you up than you might think…

‘A Most Ambiguous Sunday’ by Jung Young-moon (Review)

IMG_5165While I’ve already made a start on the second group of books from Dalkey Archive Press’ Library of Korean Literature, I haven’t quite got through all of the first ten yet.  That’s an oversight I hope to correct fairly soon, so today’s post is my ninth concerning the original series, looking at a collection of stories I kept meaning to try, but never quite found the time for.  Time for a relaxing Sunday read…

A Most Ambiguous Sunday (review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a collection of fourteen lengthy stories by Korean writer Jung Young Moon, running in total to just under 300 pages.  The back cover claims that the writer is “considered an eccentric in the traditional Korean literary world”, and having read this collection, I can only agree.  Readers who enjoy simple stories with important things like plots and characters should probably move along – nothing for you to see here , I’m afraid.

Those who are a little more prepared to trust the writer, though, ready to take a leap of faith in the hope that all will gradually come clear, will find a lot to enjoy in Jung’s idiosyncratic tales.  The beauty of the stories is less in what they say and more in how they’re constructed and in the mood the writer conjures up.  At times, he overreaches himself, and you might find yourself glazing over and wondering where the last five minutes went, but on the whole, the stories have a hypnotic pull, drawing the reader effortlessly through to the final page.

Many of the stories are notable for the feeling of calm they extend, even when the protagonists should be anything but.  In ‘Mrs. Brown’, one of the better-known stories, a brutal home invasion turns into a polite afternoon tea party as the hostess absent-mindedly ponders the state of her marriage, almost ignoring the gun being waved around.  ‘Drifting’ sees a vagrant, a man who has spent time in mental institutions, wander the freezing streets before being taken to the police station.  Yet despite the aggressive nature of the detectives who interrogate him, the whole affair passes as if in a dream, leaving the characters (and the reader) untouched.

Other stories don’t even pretend to have much of a plot, allowing the characters to act as they please as their words swirl aimlessly around.  A good example is ‘The Joy of Traveling’, in which two friends drive around, half-expecting a third friend who is unlikely to appear:

They knew where their conversation was going.  It was sure to keep getting sidetracked, with no point to it whatsoever.  That was the reason, too, why it was satisfying to talk to her.  Their conversations never had a point, and so they never reached any point.
‘The Joy of Travelling’, p.35 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)

This lack of action reaches its peak in the story ‘Together with a Chicken’, a piece which simply consists of idle ramblings of the most exquisite variety:

I said that to the invisible chicken next to me, which agreed.

‘Together with a Chicken’, p.108

Now if ever there was a line I wish I had written, that’s pretty much it.

One of the themes that does occasionally appear is the melancholy of existence, and several of the stories show people wandering around in settings enhancing a mood of loss.  ‘At the Amusement Park’ has a man slipping into an abandoned complex, sitting in old attractions and remembering his younger days, while the protagonist of ‘Losing the Olfactory Sense’ wanders the streets of a town doomed to be flooded by a newly constructed dam, a place of silence and dust.

This theme also pervades an interesting trilogy of stories in the middle of the collection, ‘Animal Songs of Boredom and Fury’, in which a man who has turned his back on civilisation spends his time by the river, in a cave by the sea and at the top of an abandoned lighthouse.  Again, there is no real direction to the stories – in fact, we’re not even completely sure that the nameless central character is the same one in each part.  These are stories without location, timeless, a literary laboratory outside the normal world to experiment with… something.

You might wonder, seeing as many of the stories appear to lack any content, what actually makes them worth reading, and the answer is, of course, the writing.  Jung enjoys playing with words, repeating them almost to the point of stripping them of their meaning, characters talking for the sake of talking, enjoying the idea and sound of conversation rather than the content:

…and what we enjoyed was the feeling of certain words in the rambling conversation being repeated and reiterated so that a certain rhythm was felt, and the feeling of listlessness created by that feeling.

     In this way, our conversations were ones that not so much broke free from reality as deviated from reality, and our reality lay in a place that deviated from reality, but that reality was more real to us than any other reality, and we knew that what made reality insignificant was none other than insignificant realism.
‘A Way of Remembrance’, p.87

Don’t be too hard on the speaker here – he is talking about (and to) a corpse.

In a book like this, then, the translation is crucial, and on the whole this was a good effort.  As you may have noticed, I didn’t credit the translator above, and that was deliberate, because there were actually too many of them to name at that point.  Two of the stories were joint efforts between the writer and two well-known names in K-Lit (Sora Kim-Russell for one, Krys Lee for the other) while the majority of the stories were divided between Jung Yewon and the team of Louis Vinciguerra and Inrae You Vinciguerra.  One interesting thing I found (and I’m not sure others would agree with me), is that the stories translated by the Vinciguerras appeared slightly less abstract and more plot-centred whereas Jung’s efforts were often more about the effect of the words.  This may just be due to the choice of stories, but I certainly felt a slight difference in style in the last five stories.  If anyone would like to weigh in on that, I’d be most grateful.

A Most Ambiguous Sunday has been described as a typical Dalkey Archive book, and I’m not going to dispute that.  Jung Young Moon, on the basis of this collection, will not be to everyone’s liking, but if you enjoy hypnotic, repetitive sentences musing on the emptiness of life (Beckett is a reference point I’ve seen mentioned several times), this might be a book for you.  I won’t pretend that I understand everything the writer wanted to say, but I did enjoy it immensely.  It’s a book to take your time over, one to read on a lazy, sunny day.

Preferably in the company of a chicken ;)

‘Troubling Love’ by Elena Ferrante (Review)

IMG_5163While the third of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, didn’t quite live up to the excellence of My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, I’m still looking forward to the publication of the last part of the series later this year.  In the meantime, though, anyone wanting to try more of Ferrante’s work can scratch the itch with some of her earlier books.  I loved The Days of Abandonment when I read it last year, and today’s choice is another short, dark work, a novel which plunges the protagonist, and the reader, into rather familiar territory.

Troubling Love (translated by Ann Goldstein, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) begins with a tragic event, the drowning death of an elderly woman off the Italian coast.  When her daughter, Delia, learns of the woman’s death, she makes the trip down from Milan to Naples, both to attend the funeral and to wind up affairs in the southern metropolis.  Having lived in the north for some time, she is suddenly, and violently, thrust back into the mixture of chaotic city life and dialect she left behind many years before.

Once the funeral is over, however, Delia begins to look for reasons for the death of her mother,  Amalia.  Having received several confused calls shortly beforehand, the daughter suspects that someone else was involved in the drowning, a man her mother may have become involved with.  This is the start of a journey into the past, and it’s an experience which will have Delia reconsidering what she knows about her mother and her own life.

For anyone who has read other Ferrante books, Troubling Love is extremely familiar in its style and content.  Delia, the heroine of the piece, has much in common with Olga (from The Days of Abandonment), an educated, middle-aged woman whose life is thrown into turmoil by an unexpected event.  Like Olga, Delia finds herself acting without thinking, racing around the streets and throwing herself at men, temporarily incapable of her usual calm control.

The reason for this behaviour, though, is perhaps less to do with any person, and more with the city she is forced to return to; one of the main characters of Troubling Love is the city of Naples, a place Delia realises can be left, but never forgotten:

So I was forgotten on the street.  The crowd of relatives departed to the outlying neighborhoods from which they had come.  My mother had been buried by insolent undertakers at the bottom of a pit stinking of wax and decaying flowers.  I had a backache and stomach cramps.  I made up my mind reluctantly: I walked along the burning-hot wall of the Botanic Garden to Piazza Cavour, in air made heavier by the exhaust from the cars and the buzz of dialect sounds that I deciphered unwillingly.
pp.20/1 (Europa Editions, 2006)

The city of her childhood is familiar and unwelcome at the same time, and gradually it sucks Delia back in, forcing her to drop her cultured Italian for her childhood vernacular, altering her behaviour, forcing her to become a part of the chaos around.

One rather unpleasant aspect of her hometown is its inherent masculinity, and Delia is forced to confront the male gaze at every turn.  On the streets, men lust after her (and frequently attempt to touch her in passing); the family members she meet order her around, commanding her to change her clothes and adjust her make up.  In Naples, women are subservient, daughters, then wives, then mothers – never independent beings.  The modern-minded Delia struggles with this Neapolitan mindset:

I had trouble accepting that he (Delia’s uncle) put my father in the right and her in the wrong.  he was her brother, a hundred times he had seen her battered by slaps, punches, kicks: and yet he had never lifted a finger to help her.  For forty years he had continued steadfastly to declare solidarity with his brother-in-law. (p.47)

Amalia was never forgiven for her decision to leave her abusive husband, and even now, he and the people around him believe that he is the one hard done by.

In truth, though, the men of the novel are of little importance, for the heart of the story is about the connection between the two women.  Delia is determined to solve the mystery of her mother’s last days, but the more she throws herself into the quest, the more she starts to reconsider her own identity.  Seeing faces from the past forces her to think back to her childhood, and she realises that opinions she took for granted may actually be based on illusions – the two women are not as different as Delia likes to think:

My mother, who for years had existed only as an annoying responsibility, at times nagging, was dead.  But as I rubbed my face vigorously, especially around the eyes, I realized with unexpected tenderness that in fact I had Amalia under my skin, like a hot liquid that had been injected into me at some unknown time. (p.86)

The time in Naples is unlikely to bring closure in terms of finding out about Amalia’s life; however, the frenetic few days roaming the streets of her youth will help Delia learn more about herself.

Troubling Love is an excellent short read, spiky, aggressive and compelling, a welcome reintroduction to Ferrante’s breathless manner of pushing her characters (and readers) along at a pace slightly faster than is comfortable.  Once again, Goldstein’s prose hurries the reader along, never allowing them to settle comfortably into a rhtyhm.  For the Ferrante admirer (and there are many of them around), perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel is the way in which it shows the roots of the later Neapolitan Novels, acting almost as an Ur-My Brilliant Friend.  Amalia is a fascinating character, but one who never really ventures centre-stage, and it’s tempting to see her as the prototype for Lila in the later novels, where the writer gives herself time to look at the character’s life in detail.

Of course, most people will be more interested in Troubling Love as a stand-alone book, and it certainly succeeds on that front too.  It’s a fascinating look at the world of women in a male-dominated society, with a story which twists and turns right until the last few pages.  Here’s hoping that when The Story of the Lost Child (the final part of the Neapolitan series) appears in September, it contains some of the fire and magic of Ferrante’s earlier work :)

IFFP 2015 – Longlist Predictions

The announcement of the longlist for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is just a matter of weeks away, and here at Tony’s Reading List, we’ve been working hard to clear the decks in anticipation of a busy couple of months ahead.  Before we look to the future, though, it’s time to take some time to consider the past.  While second-guessing the fine people on the official panel is a fool’s game, we on the Shadow Panel take it upon ourselves every year to give it a go anyway (let’s not think think too hard  about what that says about us…).  With that in mind, today’s post sees some predictions as to books that may or may not be mentioned when the official list appears (all links are to my reviews).  Never let it be said that I’m not prepared to stick my head out ;)

First up, I’m tipping another longlisting for an old favourite, Andrés Neuman.  This year saw Pushkin Press release two more of his books in English, both translated by the team of Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia: the short, three-voiced novel Talking to Ourselves, and the superb short-story anthology The Things We Don’t Do.  I’d be very surprised if Neuman’s name wasn’t on the list; however, with each writer only being allowed one submission (as far as I’m aware), I’m not really sure which of the two Pushkin will submit for consideration.  While I preferred the short stories, I have a sneaking suspicion that it may be the novel(la) which will get the nod…

Another old favourite (the publisher, not the writer) is, of course, Peirene Press, and the Nymph will be looking to maintain her perfect record of one longlisted title for each year of the company’s history.  I’ve only read one of last year’s series, but Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room (translated by Deborah Dawkin) has all the hallmarks of another success, even if matching the 2014 special mention achieved by The Mussel Feast might just be beyond its reach.

2015 could also be the year where Gallic Books, a small publisher focusing on works in French, makes the list.  I read (and enjoyed) two of their offerings this year, Nagasaki by Éric Faye (tr. Emily Boyce) and Michel Déon’s The Foundling Boy (tr. Julian Evans).  Unfortunately, The Foundling Boy was published at the end of 2013, and is thus ineligible for this year’s prize, but the sequel (The Foundling’s War, which I haven’t yet read) might be a chance  Perhaps, though, the brevity of Nagasaki will appeal to the over-worked judges ;)

Next up, we have two big names from Scandinavia who have a good chance of making it onto the longlist this year.  The third instalment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, Boyhood Island (Harvill Secker), may not have been the best of the three so far, but it should make the cut (although I wouldn’t really expect to see it go any further).  Per Petterson, of course, has already tasted IFFP success (back in 2006 with Out Stealing Horses), and I Refuse (Harvill Secker), my first taste of his work, has a good chance of doing well this year.  The translator for both, by the way, is Don Bartlett :)

Finally, two big names of translated fiction could well be on the longlist this year.  Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (tr. Philip Gabriel, Harvill Secker) was a welcome return to form, and if 1Q84 was able to make the longlist, this one should be a certainty ;)  On the other hand, Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name was a frankly shocking omission from last year’s selection.  I don’t think Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (tr. Ann Goldstein) is as good as the first two novels in the series, but there’s every chance that Europa Editions will have something to cheer about this time around.

Of course, eligibility is always an important factor in these decisions, and there were a few great books published last year which won’t be chosen.  One of my favourite reads of 2014 was Liveforever by Andrés Caicedo (tr. Frank Wynne) – sadly, books by deceased writers are ineligible, even for a first translation, so this one is out.  Shin Kyung-sook’s I’ll Be Right There (tr. Sora Kim-Russell) did a great job of redeeming the writer (in my eyes) after the frankly awful English-language version of Please Look After Mother, but I’m unaware of any UK edition of the new book.  The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky) does have a UK release slated, but not until February – perhaps this is one for next year ;)

Finally, I’ll look at four books which might be considered, if they are eligible – and it’s a big if…  Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente (tr. Margaret Jull Costa) was one of my top few books of the year, but are Madrid-based publishers Hispabooks entitled to enter it for the IFFP?  Another one of my top-five books for 2014 was Matthias Énard’s excellent novel Zone – however, Fitzcarraldo Editions’ first work in translation was published a few years back in the US by Open Letter Books

Finally, Pavane for a Dead Princess by Park Min-gyu (tr. Amber Hyun Jung Kim) and Haïlji’s The Republic of Užupis (tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton), two of the latest Dalkey Archive Press offerings, are both books I think could be in with a shout of selection.  The big question here is whether Dalkey actually bother entering the IFFP – while the American Best Translated Book Award considers everything out there, in the UK it’s very much an opt-in system…

So, there you have it – a selection of books that might, can’t and probably won’t be on the longlist ;)  Before anyone starts complaining about obvious omissions, this collection is limited to books I’ve actually read, so I’m fully aware that there are plenty of others out there which could make the grade.  Please come back when the official list has been published to see how well (or badly) I’ve fared in my predictions…

‘Trees on a Slope’ by Hwang Sun-won (Review)

As mentioned in earlier posts, discovering the K-Lit section in the main library of the university where I occasionally work has enabled me to pick up books I’d never have found in the public library.  This allows me to check out classic writers like today’s choice, Hwang Sun-won, without having to resort to Amazon and the like.  Was this one another library success?  Let’s find out…

Trees on a Slope (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is the story of three friends in the South Korean army during the Korean War.  With the armistice marking the end of serious conflict in sight, melancholy Tong-ho, wise-cracking Hyon-t’ae and the taciturn Yun-gu are trying their best to get through the next few weeks intact.

Despite several engagements with the enemy, the three friends manage to come through a tricky time alive, if not unscathed.  Hyon-t’ae is injured in battle, but when he comes back to his group, he realises that he’s got off pretty lightly:

“Other friends had trickled over to shake hands with Hyon-t’ae and welcome him back.  Hyon-t’ae noticed quite a few soldiers that he didn’t recognize – reinforcements.  Hyon-t’ae was forced to the realization that many of his comrades had died in the fighting preceding the armistice.  As the men who had gathered around him recited the names of the casualties, gloom shaded their faces.  But spreading beneath that gloom was an undeniable tinge of joy that they had survived.  And what was wrong with that, so long as they kept the joy to themselves?”
p.27 (University of Hawai’i Press, 2005)

As time goes by, though, Hyon-t’ae will learn that there’s more to surviving a war than just avoiding the bullets.  Once the fighting stops, the real struggle has only just begun…

According to Bruce Fulton’s afterword, literature examining the Korean War is relatively uncommon, but Hwang (a writer lauded mainly for his short stories) is someone who did engage with the topic.  In Trees on a Slope, while touching on the actual events of the conflict, the writer focuses on the aftermath, on what became of the survivors of an horrific time in Korean history.  While some were able to put the past behind them, thriving in the new era, others remained trapped in the past, held back by the memories of what they had suffered – or the suffering they inflicted on others.

Much of the first part of the book concentrates on Tong-ho, the most intelligent of the three friends.  While Hyon-t’ae and Yun-gu escape into alcohol and women paid by the hour, ‘the poet’ (as Hyon-t’ae dubs him) is kept warm by memories of his relationship with the chaste Sugi.  With a girlfriend waiting for him at home, he is unwilling to be corrupted, no matter how much his friends complain.  However, the longer the war drags on, the more he begins to wonder whether his ideals are as important as he’d always thought.  It’s the first step towards an uncertain, disturbing future.

Part Two shifts the focus onto Hyon-t’ae, an interesting, enigmatic figure, and one whose character is slightly more ambiguous than those of the other ex-soldiers.  His wealthy background allows him to indulge himself in a life of aimless wandering, drinking and visits to houses of dubious morals (although there are few people with morals more dubious than his own).  In despair, his mother tries to pack him off to the US, a plan Hyon-t’ae isn’t averse to – if only he could summon up the energy:

“When Hyon-t’ae learned that his visa had been issued, he had wanted to leave at once – if only to free himself of the lethargy resulting from his tiresome idleness, a lethargy that shrouded his life and surroundings.  And occasionally thereafter he would feel a desire to leave for some distant place.  But every time, he would feel it was harder to extricate himself from his lethargy than it had been to penetrate an enemy encirclement during the war.” (p.136)

But why can’t he make a new start?  You sense that it has something to do with the events of the past – Hyon-t’ae is still haunted by the memories of his war days.

At the start of the novel, when the three friends are examining a deserted village, the book I was most reminded of was All Quiet on the Western Front, the classic First World War novel.  However, as the story developed, there were actually many similarities with several of Erich-Maria Remarque’s other works.  Coming Home (The Way Back) and Three Comrades looked at the struggle German soldiers faced on their return to mainstream society, and Trees on a Slope shows Korean soldiers facing very much the same problems.  In all of these books, the young men fortunate enough to escape with their lives are faced with new struggles, the need to find work and money and the search for love, all while facing down the demons in their mind.

What’s slightly different here, though, is that while the majority of Germans were spared the atrocities of war (during WWI, at least), the Korean War was a conflict that raged across the peninsula, and everyone has their own story to tell.  In addition to following the main characters, Hwang paints a picture of a country exhausted by internecine warfare, with fields gone to waste during the years of conflict.  The picture a few years on may be better economically, but the mental scars remain…

Trees on a Slope is an interesting read, but one issue Western readers should be aware of is that the way it portrays women can be quite disturbing.  Few of the female characters are fully fleshed out, and on several occasions, whether working girls or not, male characters force themselves upon them.  I’ve read two Korean books so far this year, and both have described, or alluded to, rape on several occasions.  I’m not sure, in either case, that the reader is meant to lose all sympathy for the perpetrators…

Be that as it may, in Trees on a Slope, one thing Hwang is sure of is that the suffering hasn’t been confined to the dead.  As Sugi, in her search for the truth about Tong-ho, says to Yun-gu towards the end of the novel:

“I don’t know about the painful experience you mentioned…  But in a larger sense is there any young person who hasn’t been hurt by this war?  Hyon-t’ae appears to be no exception.  And perhaps I’m not either.” (p.190)

Years after the real fighting has finished, the casualties of war continue to amass…