‘A Chain of Dark Tales’ by Jung Young-moon (Review)

IMG_5300As some of you may remember, Women in Translation Month saw me review two of my uni library finds, Yoko Tawada’s Train de nuit avec suspects and Yang Gui-ja’s Contradictions.  However, there was a third book I picked up at the same time which (for gender reasons…) had to wait a while for its turn on the pile.  It’s another slice of K-Lit, featuring a familiar name, even if the format is a little different to the writer’s last outing on the blog 🙂

Jung Young-moon’s (or Young Moon Jung’s…) A Chain of Dark Tales (translated by Inrae You & Louis Vinciguerra) was a surprise, random find at the library.  It consists of forty-five short pieces, amounting to 200 pages, and won the writer the 1999 Dongsuh Literary Award.  There are a few normal-length stories here, but the collection comprises brief tales on the whole, some only a couple of hundred words in length.  As the title suggests, there’s more than a hint of darkness yet, as was the case with the longer stories in A Most Ambiguous Sunday, Jung’s style is more bizarre than dark.

There are a number of ideas running through the collection, with several stories variations on themes.  One of these is the sudden start, a story beginning with a visitor:

“Sensing someone approaching, I opened my eyes and in disbelief saw an old pitiful dwarf with blinking eyes standing in front of my door.  There was no way for me to know how long he had been standing there.  As if he had been waiting for me to awaken, he came closer and reached out towards me when he saw my eyes open, but I remained lying down while shaking him off.”
‘The Death Bed Prayer’, p.1 (Stallion Press, 2010)

In this first story, a priest is dragged out of bed to perform a service for the dwarf.  When he gets back to his house, though, everything has changed, a state of affairs the narrator takes curiously calmly.

That might be because there are far worse things in store for the narrator over the course of A Chain of Dark Tales, with many of the stories looking at his death.  In ‘The Undertaker’, he’s treated like a corpse, picked up, carried off and dumped in a distant grave.  ‘A Terrifying Thought’ follows a similar path, with his parents weeping over the (conscious) narrator’s body.  Here too, he ends up in a grave before his time – but there is a twist…

These are brief pieces, but the idea is occasionally played out over a broader canvas.  ‘Execution’ deals with a man condemned to death, featuring a start reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial:

“That night, they, I still don’t have any clue who they were, arrested me and took me somewhere I didn’t know.  Earlier that night I had leaned against the railing of a bridge and looked down at the moon reflected in the river.  Ever since the ignoble looking moon, trapped in her own melancholy light, had cast herself into the water, I stood there and watched her for hours without blinking, waiting for the night to take me to some unknown place, though I didn’t realize this until later.”
‘Execution’, p.129

This story follows the man’s thoughts from the time of his arrest until… well, read the title.  The Kafka influence is obvious, and it doesn’t stop there – there’s even a two-page story later in the collection called ‘Conversation with Kafka’, in which an unnamed character exchanges tales with the great man.  Talk about wearing your influences on your sleeve 😉

You will have noticed that the stories mentioned so far all feature an unnamed narrator, and this is a device that runs throughout the book.  Jung’s first-person alter-egos are alone, but far from lonely, passive and occasionally restless, wandering through the writer’s pages on seemingly endless journeys.  No matter how bizarre the events they encounter, the protagonists have no trouble accepting what’s happening and adapting to the new status quo, happy to be treated as others see fit.

In addition to repeated plot elements, there’s also a recognisable style, and it’s easy to identify these stories as the work of the writer behind the A Most Ambiguous Sunday collection.  Jung has a penchant for tangents, at times verging on stream-of-consciousness, and it’s hard not to notice the contradictory nature of his language, his narrators frequently backtracking on their thoughts, often within a clause or two:

“As if I didn’t know what to do next, I stood still for a while with my arms hanging down, and I stood there because I really didn’t know what to do next.  Well, maybe it wasn’t the real reason why I couldn’t decide what to do next, but I thought it would be much better for me to think prudently.  Oh, no, that’s not completely true either.  Maybe I stood there because I thought standing dazed for a moment wasn’t such a bad thing anyway.”
‘Smile’, p.114

The characters move round in circles, not really going anywhere (physically or mentally), and this can be true for some of the stories as well, even if, on the whole, they are interesting pieces.

Language is very important in Jung’s work, which makes judging the translation tricky.  With the writer deliberately making the language sound strange and stilted, you’re never quite sure whether what you’re reading is a clumsy choice or a deliberately preserved jarring tone.  One thing I would say, though, is that the book does seem as if it might have benefited from a better editing and proofreading process.  There are lots of verb tense choices I wouldn’t have made (admittedly, some may be American preferences…) and far too many glaring typos and errors (‘past’ instead of ‘passed’ etc).  The book was published by a small press from Singapore, and I suspect it might have looked slightly more polished if it had caught the eye of a more established publisher.

A Chain of Dark Tales isn’t really a book I’d recommend for the casual reader, but if you like the little Jung’s had in English so far, it’s definitely an interesting read.  It’s a mix of longer tales and brief vignettes, with a palpable sense of strangeness hanging over the collection.  These are stories of the night, a collection of slightly disturbing dreams you’re not always sure you’ll wake up from.  The journey into Jung’s psyche can be an uncomfortable one at times, but if you like the idea of short stories which start suddenly and go nowhere, this might be for you 🙂

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