With five more books from the Dalkey Archive Press Library of Korean Literature on the way next month, it’s high time I polished off the last few from the ones released so far. Today, I’ll be looking at the last book of a famous Korean writer, a story with a domestic setting but a rather European style – one which, for many readers, will be oddly familiar…
Ch’oe Inho’s Another Man’s City (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, review copy courtesy of the publisher and Australian distributor Footprint Books) is an intriguing story set over the course of a weekend. Businessman K is rudely woken by his alarm clock at seven o’clock in the morning, dutifully crawling out of bed. That’s not unusual in itself, except for the fact that it’s Saturday – so why was it set? As the morning progresses, he notices a few other odd details and begins to wonder what’s going on:
“K lifted the toilet seat and sat. Not for the usual reason, but because he needed to make sense of what was going on. Something was messed up. It had started at seven, when the alarm came on. It had come on by itself – nobody had set it. And then, for the first time in his fifteen years of married life, he had risen from his bed naked, his bedclothes having vanished like a magician’s dove. And finally his aftershave had disappeared, replaced with a brand he wouldn’t be caught dead with.”
p.16 (Dalkey Archive Press)
After a strange encounter with a wife who no longer behaves like the one he’s lived with for years, K’s confusion grows…
Over the course of the weekend, K attempts to work out why his life seems subtly different. The key appears to be a missing ninety-minute section of his memory during his Friday-night drinking, a period in which he did a lot of things which are out of character. Pursuing every trail he can find, he slowly realises that his life is not what he thought it was. What if he’s not really in control of his life – what if it’s all just a game?
Quite apart from the name of the main character, Another Man’s City contains obvious references to Kafka (especially The Trial and The Castle), and the early parts reflect this, with K charging around the city trying to get to the bottom of the mystery. Later, the story becomes (even) more surreal, though, and the reader must pay close attention to the clues Ch’oe spreads throughout the text. The whole affair turns into an existential puzzle as K begins to wonder whether the world around him has shifted, or whether it’s actually he who has changed.
It’s certainly a page turner, the writer dragging us around Seoul in K’s wake, taking us places we’ve never been before (and some we’d much rather not have ventured into). The key to the story is working out what actually happened on the Friday night, and after catching up with a friend, the man he was drinking with before the blackout, the hunt is on. As K attempts to retrace his steps, we see there’s more to life in the big city than office buildings and late night drinking sessions. As much as an external trip, it’s really a journey into K’s psyche – and there are some disturbing things in there, let me tell you.
One way of seeing the novel is as an examination of modern life, an amusing picture of modern-day Seoul. The anonymity of the big city means that there are types not people, which might explain why K sees the same faces over and over again. This extends to the names the writer gives his characters – K, H, P… One of the few more individual names, Olenka, belongs to a professor who spends his weekends getting in touch with his feminine side (not a character I’ve found in Kafka…).
Another major theme here is a fear of the all-seeing power of the state. As K becomes aware of the changes around him, he begins to sense the hand of a higher agency, one he’s quick to label ‘Big Brother’. From the Kafkaesque, then, we move to the Orwellian, a sense that every move we make is predictable, preordained and observed:
“Hadn’t K become a human train, an automaton, coming and going as programmed? If he wanted to try a different kind of coffee, wouldn’t that thought too have been programmed by Big Brother? And even if he were to select orange juice instead of coffee in an attempt to circumvent Big Brother’s control, wouldn’t such a niggling deviation also be consistent with Big Brother’s plan?” (p.127)
Still, it’s not quite that simple – this is not a cheap knock-off of modern western classics…
This novel was completed shortly before Choe’s death in 2013, forty years after the appearance of the short story ‘Another Man’s Room’ (included in the Modern Korean Fiction anthology). In this story, a man comes home from a business trip to find his wife absent, and has strange experiences in an apartment which seems to have altered in imperceptible ways. Another Man’s City, quite apart from the title, has a lot in common with the earlier piece, seeming almost to be an expansion of that brief story, one taking it to another level; perhaps it’s a theme Ch’oe was determined to tackle again before his writing days were done.
Another Man’s City is a clever novel, one for those who enjoy books where nothing can be taken for granted, and where everything is slightly off-kilter. While learning about Korean culture and traditions can be interesting, it’s good to read something a little different now and then, and this one makes a nice change from some of the more traditional, culturally laden novels. I can think of worse ways to spend your weekend than a quick trip around Seoul in K’s company 😉
Having finished Another Man’s City (and had a quick reread of ‘Another Man’s Room’), I thought it’d be fun to look at a few more of his short stories, pieces I found online (all linked here at KTLit.com). ‘Hwang Chini I’ (translated by Benjamin Cheung) is a short story based on a historic figure, a kisaeng (Korean Geisha) of legendary beauty. It’s interesting enough, but it leaves the reader rather short (where’s Part II when you need it…). Another short one is ‘The Drunkard’, or ‘The Boozer’, (translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé), a brief tale about a young boy roaming bars, ostensibly looking for his dad (actually he’s looking for drinks). The best part about this poignant piece is watching Charles Montgomery’s video, in which the host of KTLit.com attempts to drink in the young boy’s footsteps…
My favourite, though, is ‘Deep Blue Night’ (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton), a story depicting the last leg of an American road trip. After one heck of a party, two friends set off on a long drive up the American West Coast. Despite their attempts to enjoy the freedom of their new country, the two are unable to escape the memories of their past in a harsh Korean regime. A short novella, it’s a story I really enjoyed.
Lots to get on with here, then – consider this an introduction to a writer with some very entertaining work in his back catalogue. I’m sure I’ll have a look for something else at some point; after I’ve finished the rest of the Library of Korean Literature books, of course 😉