‘Stingray’ by Kim Joo-young (Review)

Recently, I received an e-mail with some welcome news regarding the Dalkey Archive Library of Korean Literature, namely that the series will be adding five more books to its collection later this year.  Before I start thinking too much about those, though, there’s the small matter of trying the rest of the first ten (see my other reviews here), and today sees my review of the sixth of those original ten – and a very good one it is too 🙂

Kim Joo-young’s Stingray (translated by Inrae You Vinciguerra and Louis Vinciguerra, review copy courtesy of the publisher) takes place in a small Korean village in the 1950s.  Se-young, a teenager living alone with his mother, is alarmed one morning by his mother’s cries, and when he goes to see what has happened, he discovers an unexpected intruder – a young woman who has crept in to shelter from the cold.

Her name is Sam-rae, and after initial arguments, she temporarily becomes a part of the family, helping out with the housework.  She eventually disappears, leaving Se-young and his mother to fend for themselves, and it seems as if this has just been a brief, memorable interlude in their lives.  However, Sam-rae is to return, and her initial arrival is just the start of a chain of events which have a huge impact on the young boy’s life.

Stingray, at 124 pages, is more of a novella than a novel, and it could definitely be seen as a sort of Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story.  Throughout the work, Se-young begins to understand more about the world around him, forced to grow up a little more quickly by the events unfolding at home and wider afield.  By the end of the novella, circumstances have changed completely, but the reader feels that Se-young is better equipped to deal with whatever happens next.

The title has a significance as the stingray is a fish which is left tied to a door handle as a symbol of the father’s possible return.  While Se-young has few memories of his father, nevertheless, he longs for his return, flying the kites which act as a symbol of his childhood:

“On those days I would often lose my kites, their strings usually snapping after becoming too taut when the kites soared so high.  After the kites broke free, they would fly away over the mountain ridges, flapping up and down as they did, and I used to watch them vanish from my sight while feeling a great loss, and all this always reminded me of my father, who had left us behind a long time before.”
p.9 (Dalkey Archive, 2013)

While the mother rarely mentions her absent husband, she is complicit in Se-young’s behaviour, dropping her sewing and making new kites whenever he loses one…

One of the unanswered questions of the story is why Se-young’s father left (we know who he left with…).  One thing that is clear is that he is another example of a common K-Lit figure, the no-good, drunken, lazy husband – if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my recent reading, it’s that Korean writers don’t think much of family men of the past century.  Of course, this is contrasted with the saintly, hard-working, long-suffering (and domineering) mother, again, a typical literary character (c.f. The House with a Sunken Courtyard).  Se-young’s mother is another overworked character of the type, in ill health and socially isolated.

Se-young himself doesn’t quite get everything that is happening (and has already happened), but the beauty of the story is that neither do we.  The reader is frequently (deliberately) left in the dark, forcing us to identify even more closely with the adolescent hero and underlining Se-young’s innocence and naivety.  In fact, what appears to be a fairly simple story turns out to have a lot going on beneath the surface.

The actual writing, and translation, is fairly accomplished and elegant, with some nice, poetic observations:

“Two days later it snowed again.  Being naturally shy, snow always fell during the night and thus people could only see her figure in the morning.” (p.47)

Stingray is far from plotless, however, the plot is far from the only concern of the book.  It’s a story which flows along slowly, with the reader constantly aware of something happening away from the main events, an effect achieved in part by the indirect language used, drifting (like the snow…).

A book I was reminded of on reading Stingray was Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, another elegant, wintry novella.  There’s the snowy setting, of course, but there’s also a sense that there’s far more to the story than the Western reader is able to glean on a first reading.  One surprise is that a few of the major characters are a lot more tangential than most readers would expect.  Both Sam-rae and Se-young’s neighbour, Jang, turn out to have much smaller roles than I would have thought half-way through the book.  It’s all part of getting to grips with a slightly different literary culture 🙂

Stingray is one of my favourites from the series so far, at the same time simple and enjoyable, yet puzzling and slightly inaccessible.  This is partly due to cultural differences, but I’m convinced that this was also Kim’s intention, putting the reader in the shoes of an adolescent attempting to come to terms with life and the big, wide world, without all the tools required to fully understand the games people play in society.  It all makes for another great entry in Dalkey’s K-Lit library – can’t wait for the next one 😉


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