‘There a Petal Silently Falls’ by Ch’oe Yun (Review)

As I noted in my post on O Chong-hui, the Modern Korean Fiction collection, in addition to containing some wonderful stories, proved to be an excellent starting point for finding new books and authors to explore.  The collection only had a few stories by female writers, but those were some of the better ones in the book, and Ch’oe Yun’s ‘The Gray Snowman’ was definitely one of my favourites.  So would Ch’oe’s other work measure up to that one?  The answer is a resounding yes…

The beautiful book in the picture is There a Petal Silently Falls (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, and Kichung Kim, from Columbia University Press, review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Footprint Books).  It’s a collection of three stories, a thirty-page tale sandwiched between two novella-length pieces, and the three selections come from a five-year period between 1988 and 1993.  Each has a very different style, with the selection outlining the writer’s ability to experiment with different forms and content matter.

The shortest piece, ‘Whisper Yet’, is about a woman on a family ‘vacance’ at a friend’s orchard.  Over the course of a lazy summer day spent with her daughter, memories of the woman’s childhood home come back to her, in particular those involving a helper at the family’s orchard.  His name was Ajaebi, and he struck up an unlikely friendship with the woman’s father (only later did she discover just how unlikely it was…).

It’s a story set in the immediate post-Korean-war period, a clever piece about the secrets adults keep from children.  However, it’s also one whose underlying message is that having differing ideologies is not necessarily an obstacle to developing a friendship, with Ajaebi and the narrator’s father being on opposite sides of the political divide.  The politics here aren’t especially foregrounded, though, and this is a lovely, subtle story which evokes memories of pleasant summer days in the sun 🙂

The politics are much more evident, however, in the title story, perhaps the most well known of the three.  In an emotionally-charged debut piece of writing, Ch’oe creates the story of a girl found by a construction worker as she is wandering the streets.  The initial scenes are loaded with rape, violence and then silence, but as the story progresses, we are shown that the story is about much more than just one unfortunate girl.

In fact, ‘There a Petal Silently Falls’ is an allegorical story picking at the open wounds of the Kwangju uprising in 1980, when a large group of rebellious inhabitants in the southern city were slaughtered by government troops:

“As you pass by the grave sites scattered throughout the city, you may encounter her, a girl whose maroon velvet dress barely covers her, a girl who lingers near the burial mounds.  Please don’t stop if she approaches you, and don’t look back once she’s passed you by.  If your eye should be drawn to the flesh showing between the folds of that torn, soiled dress, or drawn to something resembling a wound, walk away with downcast eyes as if you hadn’t seen a thing.”
‘There a Petal Silently Falls’, p.3 (Columbia University Press, 2008)

The girl is a shell-shocked refugee wandering ever-northwards, psychologically scarred after having witnessed her mother’s death.  In order to protect herself, she has draped a ‘curtain’ over her memories, a self-imposed barrier to help her forget what she’s seen.

It’s a story in three voices, with alternating chapters told from differing points of view.  One strand follows the girl as she journeys towards Seoul; the second is told by the man who finds (and violates) the girl, only to be tormented by guilt afterwards; the final one is the voice of an uncertain ‘we’, which turns out to be student friends of the girl’s missing brother.  While assigning roles to these voices is a risky affair, it’s tempting to see the girl as the people of Kwangju and the man as the state, sharing the character’s post-massacre regrets (wishing that she – and the whole country – could return to normal).  And the students?  They are the voice of the ordinary people of Korea, following the rumours of the uprising as it spreads northwards in the form of the girl…

It’s an excellently-structured piece of writing, utilising the chorus of voices to conceal parts of the story until the appropriate time arrives.  There’s a gradual release of details, and the full horror of the troops’ attack on Kwangju only becomes apparent towards the end of the story.  I’d have to say that as a first offering, it’s a very impressive work.

Five years on, ‘The Thirteen-Scent Flower’ also criticised Korean society, albeit it in a more general, and sophisticated, manner.  The story starts as a kind of fairy-tale in which Bye, a young man obsessed with dreams of the Arctic, runs into Green Hands, a young woman with nothing to live for (but with a skill for tending plants).  Having recognised the unique connection between them, off they go in his truck to the mountains, where they discover a rare, unnamed flower and settle down in the idyllic surroundings.

There’s a lilting, fairy-tale quality to the story, aided by the discovery of the wondrous flower high in the mountains:

“Wind Chrysanthemum.  Commonly known as the Arctic Flower.  Hardy plant living in a land of bitter cold, your tender blossoms streaming in winter’s north wind beneath high clouds; your delicate purple blossoms reaching out for the sunlight shining through the clouds, symbol of your thirst for life; your fifty-five petals ever mindful that your beauty is based on the number five; your snow-white scent a distillate of the manifold desires embodied in your small form, a sad dedication to the world.”
‘The Thirteen-Scent Flower’, p.139

Having tracked the plant down, Bye and Green Hands begin work on developing different varieties, each of which has its own, inimitable scent, and the more their work progresses, the more people come to join them in their high-altitude community.

Gradually though, real life seeps into Ch’oe’s fairytale.  You see, when a flower as rare and beautiful as this is found, society demands that it be exploited for the common good.  Pharmaceutical companies, perfume designers, botanists, resort developers – they all come flocking to the mountains to see how they can use the flower to make money.  Everyone wants a piece of the magical and delicate flower, yet with a limited supply, not everyone can get what they want…

‘The Thirteen-Scent Flower’ is a critique of the commercialisation of modern life, a society where fairy tales are rarely permitted to have a happily ever after.  Anything beautiful which is uncovered must be harnessed for the good of the people – that’s what we call progress…  It’s a story which is as powerful in its own way as ‘There a Petal Silently Falls’, but in its subtle approach it’s perhaps an example of a more developed writer.

This book is a superb collection, and if I’d had the time (and energy…), I could easily have explored each story in a lot more depth.  It’s definitely a collection I’d urge you to try, and I’m looking forward to exploring the web to see if any more of Ch’oe’s work has made it into English.  Before that, there’s one more thing I should do, though – head back to my trusty copy of Modern Korean Fiction and see which K-Lit author I should check out next 😉

Footprint Books, as always, assure me that this book is available in Australia, either at bookshops or through their website 🙂


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