‘The Long Road’ by Kim In-suk (Review)

IMG_5176With a couple of honourable exceptions, most of the K-Lit I’ve read over the past year or so has been set in Korea itself, the majority in and around Seoul.  It’s no coincidence – Korean literature is notoriously inwardly focused -, but you can find the odd book set outside the peninsula if you look hard enough.  Today’s choice is one such book (another University library find), and the setting is a familiar one…

…well, for me, anyway.

Kim In-suk’s The Long Road (translated by Stephen J. Epstein) is a novella set in Australia.  The main character, Han-yeong, has lived in the country for several years, integrating fairly successfully into his new life.  However, as time passes, he feels he has left a part of himself back home, and he quits his job as an architect in an attempt to work out what he needs to do next.

Along with Myeong-u, another expatriate, he heads off to Port Macquarie to see his brother, Han-rim, and the three men (and an Aussie helper) set out for sea to fish, drink and shoot the breeze.  As a storm passes over the boat, and the men huddle below, there’s plenty of time for talking and thinking – and it turns out that the three Koreans are far from happy with the hand life has dealt them.

The Long Road is (ironically) a short book with an interesting topic, treating the reader to a rare view of the Korean diaspora.  The three main characters, while very different men, were all forced to leave their homeland for the same reason, persecution by the brutal dictatorship of the 1980s.  However, what brings them together is less a need to find familiar faces from home than a yearning to return to the mother country; each of the three, whether they admit it or not, has lost a lot by leaving Korea.

Of the three, Han-yeong appears to be the one who has made the most of life Down Under.  He’s initially attracted to the relaxed, easy atmosphere and the 5.00 culture (no death by overwork here…).  However, the longer he stays, the less comfortable he feels:

“The problem wasn’t language.  He now knew that it was one thing to understand the words that were spoken and another to understand the feelings behind them.  Maybe the difficulties began when he felt comfortable enough with English not to have any real language problems.”
p.30 (Merwin Asia, 2010)

After a few years of life in a different culture, it might just be time to reconnect with his own.

In an attempt to work out his own issues, he takes on voluntary work at a newspaper, looking for stories of other Korean expats, and this is where he encounters Myeong-u.  He’s a later arrival, a dissident who recently received permanent residency in Australia, and Han-yeong (along with the reader) gradually learns of his story of torture and beatings.  Of course, PR isn’t really what Myeong-u wants – having been publicly labelled as being at risk of persecution, there’s now little chance of his ever going home.

The most comfortable of the three men, on the surface, at least, is Han-rim.  He left Korea after his protest song, the titular ‘The Long Road’, was banned, but once he arrived in Australia, he kept running, away from his family and community.  With his small boat (and his dreams of catching a whale…), he’s determined to be free:

     Han-rim turned away from the window and looked at Myeong-u.  “You should try to enjoy Australia now too, Myeong-u.  What can we do in a foreign country?  What would be the point of coming all this way if the goal was to knock ourselves out earning money?  You know what people with permanent residence can do?  Permanently enjoy the place.” (p.71)

That’s easier to say than do – the truth is that none of them, not even Han-rim, really feel that way:

A sense of crisis swept over Han-yeong.  “Enjoy.”  Was it a Korean essence remaining inside him that made the word feel like it represented a sin? (p.71)

Moving on is not quite as easy as Han-rim would have the others believe…

The Long Road is an interesting story of those who left Korea during a difficult time (many books of the same era focus on those who stayed and suffered).  The picture of the three men is a portrait of people mentally scarred by their struggle against authority.  Having fled the country, they then suffer further from the difficulties of exile and their inability to fully absorb an alien culture, hoping to return to the place which tormented and rejected them.

I’d have to say, though, that I’m not sure this is a book a newcomer to K-Lit would enjoy.  It’s far too allusive on the whole, and the casual reader really needs more background to fully understand why the men are so unhappy.  In other works I’ve read on the same period (e.g. There a Petal Silently Falls, I’ll Be Right There), there’s a much clearer focus, allowing the reader glimpses of what was going on, but The Long Road is far too oblique.  I also found it to have an uneasy length and fit – it’s both too short and too long in a way, a slightly awkward mix between a story and a novel which doesn’t really suit either length.

This is definitely one for K-Lit fans looking to broaden their horizons.  It’s a nice quick read, but not really in the same league as some of the other Korean books I’ve read this year.  Perhaps there’s a reason why there’s not a lot of Korean fiction set outside the country – maybe Korean authors really do create their best work when writing about home…

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