Over the course of my past year’s Korean literature adventures, I’ve discovered lots of great female writers (e.g. O Chong-hui, Ch’oe Yun, Bae Suah), so I was always going to try another one for Women in Translation Month. Luckily, on my most recent trip to the uni library, a book caught my eye, a relatively contemporary novel (dating from 1998). It’s a story of modern life, and the many ways to live it, many of them seemingly diametrically opposed – contradictory even…
Yang Gui-ja’s Contradictions (translated by Stephen Epstein and Kim Mi-young) looks at a year in the life of 25-year-old An Jin-jin. Having reached this momentous age, she’s decided that it’s time to sort her life out and take her next steps. Apart from her work and family life, the main issue she needs to resolve is that of marriage as she (in her mind…) is fast becoming a little old for single life.
However, organising your life isn’t quite as easy as she imagines, and over the following months problems arise in several areas. Unlike Jin-jin’s well-off Aunt, her mother (the aunt’s twin…) is struggling along, abandoned by an alcoholic deadbeat husband. There’s also Jin-jin’s brother Jin-mo, a young man with delusions of Marlon Brando-like grandeur. In terms of marriage, the prospects are a little better, a little too good, in fact. You see, Jin-jin actually has two boyfriends on the go and is unable to decide between them. Choices, choices…
From that description, Contradictions might appear a little light and wacky, and it certainly starts out that way. The first chapters are dominated by a young, slightly annoying, voice:
“I definitely don’t want to blame my mother for the chaos in my life. I don’t particularly trust people who pin the responsibility for everything on family or society or the system. Sometimes I meet kids who try to justify their self-indulgence with these sorts of explanations, but I can’t stand their rhetoric. Empty-headed fifteen- or sixteen-year-olds who parrot excuses like that are the worst. I can hardly keep myself from slapping them. Smart alecks without an ounce of self-respect.”
p.8 (Cornell East Asia Series, 2005)
The first name that came to mind when reading these early sections was Holden Caulfield (I could almost hear the word ‘phonies’ coming through as sub-text), but that’s definitely not meant as praise – I loathe The Catcher in the Rye…
Luckily, there’s a lot more to Yang’s novel than that, though. Contradictions is a fascinating read, fairly complex in its own way. It’s all about how life is messy, no matter how simple we want it to be, using Jin-jin’s story to show how what might appear to be a perfect (or imperfect) life can be anything but when seen up close. Yes, it can be melodramatic in parts, but it’s also a story most readers will be able to identify with.
The novel’s title, despite its rather abstract feel, is well-chosen as this is a story full of contradictions. The most obvious one concerns the twin sisters whose lives diverged at the point of marriage. Simply by virtue of being ten-minutes older, Jin-jin’s mother is landed with a no-good husband while her sister is ushered into a life of ease and luxury. This is reflected in the next generation, especially when you compare Jin-jin’s Ivy League educated cousin and her gangster brother. Even Jin-jin’s potential husbands are complete contrasts. Set next to each other, the organised, pushy Yeong-gyu and the kind, ultra-laidback Jang-u hardly belong in the same story…
Cleverly, though, the contradictions are not absolute, apt for a culture where even the flag shows how contrasting elements contain small parts of the other. Gradually, the absolute distinctions break down; what initially seemed easy to divide into right and wrong, good and bad, comes to be more nuanced. Even if the characters appear binary, they are actually very real, each with their own distinguishing characteristics.
Jin-jin herself is excellently drawn. She’s sympathetic, but flawed, likeable but often frustrating. As the story progresses, we see the comparison with her richer, more educated cousin, and we’re firmly on Jin-jin’s side. Seeing her cousin’s blank face, a sign of her complete inability to understand how Jin-jin’s family could possibly work, it’s hard to disagree with Jin-jin’s assertion:
“A monotonous life produces a monotonous happiness.” (p.175)
Our heroine is full of contradictions, right down to her name. Jin-jin, her father’s choice, means ‘truth’; it’s just a shame that her family name (‘An’) can be read in Korean as negating that assertion…
While I’m not a huge fan of the font choice and size, or the (usually) fairly unnecessary, intrusive footnotes, this is a good edition overall. In addition to an excellent introduction on the writer and the literary scene, we’re treated to a short afterword by Yang herself, one containing fascinating insights into her intentions. At one point, she reveals her fear of possible biases based on critical responses colouring her readers’ view of the story:
“While writing Contradictions, I dreamed that every member of the novel’s audience would be a ‘first reader’. I wanted to encounter the pure impressions of a first reader, unsullied by other impressions about the work that were circulating.” (p.171)
While that might be true in Korea, she needn’t worry too much here – the majority of western readers will meet that criterion (except for those of you who read this, I suppose!).
Contradictions is a book that grew on me, and I’m sure many other readers would enjoy it too. With it being one of the less culturally bound Korean books around, it’s a shame it wasn’t picked up and promoted by a bigger publisher. It’s an excellent story, all built around the voice of Jin-jin who, while sympathetic, is not exactly the most reliable of narrators:
“Nothing is as stupid as believing that “honesty is the best policy”. Sometimes honesty is a boomerang that comes hurtling back at you as a murder weapon.” (p.86)
Really? I’m not convinced… Perhaps this is just another of Jin-jin’s (and the novel’s) many contradictions 🙂