‘The House with a Sunken Courtyard’ by Kim Won-il (Review)

Having just received another batch of books from the Library of Korean Literature (courtesy of the ever-generous Dalkey Archive Press), it’s time to review the next one from the series.  Today’s choice is one which takes us back in time, looking at life just after the end of Korean War – one year in the city of Daegu, spent in a large, interesting house…

*****
Kim Won-il’s The House with a Sunken Courtyard (translated by Suh Ji-Moon) is set in 1954, shortly after the armistice brings an uneasy end to the conflict in Korea.  After spending some time apart from his family, twelve-year-old Gilsam is summoned to the southern city of Daegu to rejoin the rest of his family – two younger brothers, an elder sister and his hard-working, over-bearing mother.

While the war is finally over, times are still tough, and the five of them are cramped together in a room they rent in a large, sprawling house (the titular house with a sunken courtyard), sharing close quarters with other refugees.  As 1954 turns into 1955, we see the relationships between the residents of the house unfold, and the six families, including that of the landlord, living in such close proximity give us a representative cross-section of the Korean people of the time.

Kim lets the reader know from the first page that the setting is far from salubrious:

“Janggwan-dong was a small district of about two hundred and fifty houses, and the street, that stretched for only three hundred meters, was narrow and winding, too narrow for automobile traffic and only wide enough for hand-drawn carts, and was bordered by other administrative districts on either side.  Along both sides of the street ran open sewers, so it stank except during the winter, and in the summer pink mosquito larvae swarmed in them.”
pp.5/6 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)

This squalor continues when we get to see where Gilnam’s family lives, as despite the splendour of the landlord’s main house, the refugees’ quarters are dirty, cramped rooms in another building, right next to the sewage trench.  The sad thing is that, by the standards of the day, these families are actually the lucky ones.

Having arrived too late to try to get into a middle school, Gilnam is persuaded to go out onto the streets of Daegu to try to make a living, taking the role of the head of the family in place of his father (possibly dead, possibly living in the North).  While he would prefer to study, he realises that the family needs money to supplement his mother’s income from sewing, so he pounds the streets selling newspapers, hoping one day to be able to share in the delights he sees richer people enjoying.

While The House with a Sunken Courtyard mainly focuses on the struggles of day-to-day life, there are some political elements.  One of the sub-plots is centred on a family from the North who are frequently harassed by a detective, and there is plenty of talk about the way society has changed since the war:

“This war has corrupted everyone,” Jeongtae argued. “Everyone has become money-mad and would grovel before the worst of thieves if they had money.  Everyone thinks of nothing but making money fast and escaping poverty, and won’t stop at anything, even stealing.  But under this system only the capitalist thieves can make more and more money, and the honest poor folk remain poor no matter how hard they work.” (p.115)

True or not, this is dangerous talk in post-war South Korea.  When even the mere fact of praising Communism can land you in prison, it’s sometimes best to keep as quiet as possible…

In reality, though, the book concentrates on Gilnam’s family, and the figure who presides over them is the mother, that quasi-mythical Korean creature.  Deserted by her husband, she will go to any lengths to support her family, even if that calls for some (very) tough love at times (it’s no coincidence that Gilnam is recalled to Daegu too late to try out for Middle School).  In order to help everyone survive in the long-term, she is quite prepared to inflict short-term pain and hunger on her unwitting children.  For a Westerner like myself, she’s a very ambiguous character, but I suspect that a Korean reader would see her in a much more positive light, even when she’s whipping her children and making them go without dinner.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that The House with a Sunken Courtyard is a rather depressing novel, but that’s not entirely true.  It’s actually a nostalgic look back at the narrator’s youth, a time when things were very different and, despite the poverty, not always worse.  There’s more than a hint of The Wonder Years about it, and I could easily imagine the narrator’s voice taking us back through the decades to a poorer, simpler time (in fact, there are a couple of connections here, with that show starting around the time this novel appeared in Korea – and featuring a veteran of the Korean War as the father!).

The sepia-tinged air is created, in part, by Suh Ji-moon’s translation.  While it’s very well written and highly effective, there is a deliberate choice of old-fashioned vocabulary and syntax.  I was a little dubious at the start, but as the novel progressed, I could see how it was a deliberate stylistic choice, distancing the reader (and narrator) from the action and fixing the setting as a very different time and place.  It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I suspect that it reflects the intentions of the original very well.

In The House with a Sunken Courtyard, Kim has recreated a slice of history, a photographic record (in black and white, of course) of a fascinating period in his country’s history.  Anyone with an interest in Korea will enjoy reading about the struggles people faced after the war and the way in which they began to come to terms with the new world order of living in a state separated by ideology.  While it’s not the best of the Library of Korean Literature books I’ve read so far, it’s a certainly one I’d recommend, a sombre reminder that the country wasn’t always a high-tech marvel…

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