‘The Road to Sampo’ by Hwang Sok-yong (Review)

I’ve already tried a couple of novels by Hwang Sok-yong this year, so I was very happy to receive one of his books in the bundle I received recently.  However, where the others I read were fairly lengthy novels (particularly The Shadow of Arms), today’s choice is a much briefer affair.  Nevertheless, it’s a work which is very well known in Korea, one which forms an important part of his legacy…

The Road to Sampo (translated by Kim U-chang, review copy courtesy of Asia Publishers) is a short story in the Modern Korean Literature Bilingual Editions series, and it’s one of Hwang’s more popular works.  It’s set in the early seventies and is a brief tale of an unlikely trio of fellow travellers walking through a wintry countryside in search of the local train station.

The story begins with Yeong-dal, a young worker who has just left a construction site which is closing down for the winter.  Meeting Cheong, a fellow worker, at the side of the road, he decides to accompany him for part of the journey, and the two men are later joined by Paek-hwa, a prostitute who has run away from the café-cum-brothel she was staying at.  Together, the three of them trudge through the snow, sharing stories about their lives as they go – and as poor workers in a rapidly changing landscape, they have plenty of tales to tell…

The Road to Sampo is a great story, an almost cinematic road trip (it actually was made into a film in Korea).  It’s a short trip, but it makes for a brief respite from the grind of daily life, an example of the typical, transient friendships of the travelling working classes of the time.  In addition, the story has a beautiful winter setting, with the icy winds, the snow and the silent landscape adding to the cinematic feel.

Hwang’s story is also a humorous one, with many light touches.  When the (slightly naive) Yeong-dal questions Cheong about his work skills, the older man dryly hints at where he picked them up:

“Wow, having all those skills, you must feel very secure,” Yeong-dal said admiringly.
  “I’ve been doing them for more than ten years,” said Cheong.
  “Where did you learn them?” asked Yeong-dal.
  “There’s a very nice place where they teach you all those skills,” answered the other man.
  “I wish I could go there,” said Yeong-dal naively.
  But Cheong said with a bitter smile, shaking his head: “It’s easy to go there, but I’m not sure you would really want to go.  It is a very big place – only too big.”
pp.25/7 (Asia Publishers, 2012)

Let’s just say that it’s unlikely Cheong ended up there of his own accord…  Another memorable moment is when the two men finally catch up with the runaway Paek-hwa.  She’s a beautiful woman, but they don’t initially see her from her best angle 😉

However, there are serious undertones to the story.  The Road to Sampo is another of those stories set in a time of upheaval in Korea.  The shift from an agrarian to an industrial society is in full swing, a development which has an enormous effect on the workers.  There has been a massive shift from the countryside to the cities, and the poor are forced to travel to look for work.  Yeong-dal is just one of the many who have been forced to leave loved ones behind in order to make ends meet.

While not the major focus of the author, another area of interest is the role of women in the story.  It begins with the wife of the canteen owner, a woman who has taken Yeong-dal into her bed, being casually beaten, and the major female character is Paek-hwa, a young woman whose only chance of making a living is to trade her beauty.  She certainly feisty enough, yet at twenty-two she already appears jaded, washed out.  It’s definitely not only the men who suffered at the time…

The Sampo of the title is Cheong’s hometown, the destination he and Yeong-dal are working towards:

“Which way is Sampo?”
  “South, that is, as far south as you can go,” said Cheong, vaguely pointing his chin to the south.
  “How big a place is that?  Are there many people living there?” asked Yeong-dal.
  “Ten houses or so,” explained Cheong.  “It’s a pretty island, Sampo is.  The soil is good, lots of land.  Fishing is good too.  You can catch as much fish as you want.” (p.29)

In truth, Sampo is less a real place than an imagined idyll, a memory of the past, one which is unlikely to be found again.  There’s no place corresponding to the description of Cheong’s Sampo in Korea, but while browsing for connections, I stumbled across a mention – in Finnish folklore…  According to Wikipedia, in Finnish mythology the Sampo or Sammas was a magical artefact of indeterminate type that brought good fortune to its holder (I wonder if Hwang was aware of this…).  Sadly, it’s an item that proves to be rather elusive, and you sense that Cheong and Yeong-dal are also on a trip towards a place they’ll never be able to reach…

The Road to Sampo is another entertaining story, the short text enhanced by the added extras.  There’s the original Korean version, of course (still a bit too tricky for me!), with a short critical review and biography – and it’s the biography that really impresses.  Hwang’s a great writer with a fascinating life, including trips to North Korea, exile and imprisonment.  When he was younger, he left school and travelled around the country, working alongside the people Yeong-dal and Cheong are modelled upon.  When one of the Nobel Prize for Literature bigwigs bemoaned the move towards insular professional writers a few weeks ago, Hwang was most definitely not one of the writers he had in mind 😉

While I wasn’t always entirely convinced by the translation, the quality of story shines through, and it made me keen to try more of Hwang’s work.  As for the Bilingual Editions, well, they’re certainly worth a try too (and if money were no object, I’d be buying up the box sets…).  Head to Amazon if you like the sound of them; there are a lot to choose from 🙂

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