‘The Dwarf’ by Cho Se-hui (Review)

While I’ve been lucky enough to receive several review copies during my Korean literature adventures this year, I haven’t had quite the same luck in searching the databases of my local library system (probably because most K-Lit books are brought out by US presses rather than British publishers).  However, a few weeks ago, I realised that my new part-time job at the local university gave me borrowing rights at their library, so I thought I’d check out what they had to offer – and there, among some old, dusty shelves at the far end of the fifth floor (sixth, if you’re from North America) was a collection of translations from Korean, both classic and more recent…

…and here’s the first 😉

Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is a series of interlinked stories, originally serialised between 1975 and 1978.  The book is a dark critique of the government of the time and the frenzied rush towards modernisation that took place after the Korean War.  In a few short decades, Korea experienced an accelerated shift from an agrarian state to a futuristic high-tech wonderland – the problem is that the ‘Miracle on the Han’ wasn’t so miraculous for everyone…

The titular dwarf, Kim Pul-i, is one of the main characters of the book, a little man struggling to make ends meet.  Like many others, he and his family are evicted when their house is slated for demolition, and they are forced to sell it for a small profit to a middleman (who then sells it on to developers for big bucks).  After his attempt to run away and make use of his stature by joining a travelling circus of homeless men is thwarted by his wife, he becomes depressed, unable to provide for his family.  It’s all set to end in tears…

In Cho’s eyes, though, Kim is not the only ‘dwarf’.  The term is also used to refer to the ordinary working-class people exploited by the rich.  When Kim is attacked by someone angry at his undercutting their prices, a woman from the neighbourhood steps in to help – from sympathy and solidarity:

“Mister?” Shin-ae spoke quietly.  “We’re dwarfs too.  Maybe we’ve never thought of each other that way, but we’re on the same side.”
p.31 (University of Hawaii Press, 2006)

This solidarity is rare, though.  Most people are simply too tired and drained of energy to pay any interest to others, and when they do, they get stepped on, quickly.

The main theme of The Dwarf is the exploitation of the working classes, and Cho paints a picture of an industrial revolution in 20th-Century East Asia.  He introduces us to the horrific town of Ungang, the ‘City of Machines’, where the pollution and unbreathable air outside go together with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit inside the factories the locals work in.  Turning up for fourteen-hour shifts and jabbed with pins by supervisors to keep them awake, the workers often turn to drugs to make it through the day.  It’s nothing less than Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ transported to Korea.

Of course, this is the lot of the poor – the rich fare much better.  The factory owners receive huge profits, making donations to charity to keep up a good public image.  Meanwhile, the workers can’t even make ends meet, with living costs amounting to more than their weekly wages.  There’s little help at hand from the unions as the bosses arrange for those who raise a voice to be taken off for a swift kicking (or simply ostracised by other workers).  The truth is that the bosses have no interest in dialogue, seeing the workers as merely ‘mechanical energy’…

Things aren’t much better for the middle classes either as they struggle through the terrifying school system towards a university place.  It’s a fight for a good education and a successful future, but it’s a struggle during which most will have to decide between their conscience and the chance of a happy future.  As Shin-ae remarks, regarding her brother and his friend:

“For these two, the society in which they lived was a monstrosity.  It was a monster that wielded terrible power at its pleasure.  Her brother and his friend saw themselves as oil floating on water.  Oil does not mix with water.  But such a comparison is not really apt.  What was truly awful was the fact that the two of them stumbled along inside this great monstrosity even though they didn’t accept it.” (p.93)

In fact, one is to later give in and join the enemy…

The Dwarf is a scary story, told in a way which emphasises the near impossibility of escape.  The stories loop around, returning to several groups of characters: the dwarf’s family, especially his elder son Yong-su; Shin-ae, a depressed, frustrated housewife; and Yun-ho, a rich kid with a bleak view on life.  While they all have different views, each tells the same story, one of a country which has sold its soul in the hope of a future filled with nice apartments and shiny cars.  The penultimate story even tells the story through the eyes of an arrogant rich kid, an exercise which simply goes to emphasise the class gulf separating him from the main characters.

All in all, it’s not exactly the happiest of books, but it’s a great read nonetheless.  And, of course, we can be happy that all this is in the past – can’t we?  Well…  It’s funny that since reading The Dwarf I’ve come across several reports of the growing gap between rich and poor in the West (many centred on the success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a surprise best-seller which shows that people are beginning to be more aware of the issue).  And turning back towards East Asia, recent events have left Koreans wondering if the country even has its priorities right today.  You see, the beauty of a book like The Dwarf is that its message always seems to be relevant and timely.  It’s just a shame that no one ever seems to listen…

2 thoughts on “‘The Dwarf’ by Cho Se-hui (Review)

Every comment left on my blog helps a fairy find its wings, so please be generous - do it for the fairies.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.