‘A Distant and Beautiful Place’ by Yang Kwija/Gui-ja (Review)

IMG_5371While I haven’t read quite as much K-Lit as I did last year, 2015 has still been a good year on the Korean front, with several new writers discovered.  One of these was Yang Gui-ja, whose novel Contradictions I read and enjoyed during Women in Translation Month, and (luckily enough) a trip to the university library unearthed another of her books.  I’m not really sure about the cover, but I can assure you that I did enjoy what I found inside 😉

A Distant and Beautiful Place (translated by Kim So-young and Julie Pickering) is another example of a genre beloved of Korean writers, the linked short-story collection.  The book contains eleven substantial pieces (each running to around twenty pages of fairly small print) looking at the life of a character or family in the suburb of Wonmi-dong, part of the satellite city of Pu’chon.  Set in the mid-1980s, the book reflects the flight of the working and lower-middle classes from a Seoul which has become too expensive to live in, describing the growth of these new areas where previously there was nothing but fields.

The first story, ‘A Distant and Beautiful Place’, introduces us to the setting as we accompany a small family on their way to a new life.  On a freezing winter’s day, an office worker who has struggled to find a place in Seoul clears up his small apartment and piles everything on to the back of a rented truck, taking his daughter, mother and heavily-pregnant wife on a trip to what the (very religious) older lady sees as the promised land:

“Thank you, Father.  Thank you for giving us a house to live in.”  He recalled his mother’s prayer earlier today at the breakfast table.  “Thank you for helping us on our way.  Lord, you promised Abraham generations of prosperity and bestowed a wonderful land on him.  This family has suffered great hardships with no house to call its own, but now, thanks to your blessings, Father, we, too, are leaving for Canaan.  Lord, who has given us a fine house, please watch over us in our new home and help us live in accordance with your ways…”
‘A Distant and Beautiful Place’, p.11 (University of Hawai’i Press, 2003)

There’s a certain irony in her prayers, and in the name of the family’s new home.  The literal translation of Wonmi-dong may be ‘a distant and beautiful place’ (hence the English title), but it’s actually just a collection of cheap pre-fab apartments on the urban fringe, even if it seems like the promised land to the tired old woman.

Once we reach Pu’chon, we’re introduced to a host of characters, many of whom will reappear in starring roles later in the book.  There’s Captain Kim, the owner of the local supermarket, whose friendly banter disguises a mean spirit, and a cowardly streak which appears at the worst possible moment.  Mr Om of the Happiness Photo Studio is an affable family man, but when a beautiful woman appears in the neighbourhood, he’s unable to resist temptation, plunging into a relationship which has wider consequences than he could have imagined.  Then there’s Mr. Pak from Kangnam Real Estate, a Seoulite always on the look-out for an interesting deal.  As the inhabitants of our little corner of suburban Korea weave in and out of each other’s stories, we gradually gain a fuller understanding of Wonmi-dong and what motivates the people who live there.

Of course, not everyone is a recent arrival, and conflict between locals and newcomers is inevitable.  The clearest example of this is in ‘The Last Land’, where Old Kang, one of the remaining local landowners, comes under pressure from both his family and his neighbours to finally sell off his last plot of land to local developers.  In an increasingly neo-liberal environment, it’s hard to justify holding on to property which could bring millions of dollars when it’s only being used to grow vegetables.  What makes it worse for the new tenants living nearby is the smell – the old man prefers fertiliser of a rather personal kind…

The pressure of progress is felt by some of the newcomers too.  In ‘The Spark’, a businessman who has lost his job is finally, despite his pride, forced to accept a job in sales, spending much of the story plucking up the courage to open his mouth, struggling with a task he finds demeaning.  While he eventually gives in to his fate, others prefer to follow their own path.  The central character of ‘A Vagabond Mouse’, a businessman sick of his daily routine, simply vanishes into the hills surrounding the neighbourhood (perhaps the only character here who takes the suburb’s name literally…).

While there are several examples of the famed Asian office drone in this collection, many of the stories focus on the situation of manual workers.  Both in its style and subject matter, Yang’s collection reminds the reader of Cho Se-hui’s seminal work The Dwarf, and A Distant and Beautiful Place is, in many ways, a sort of continuation of this story, taking up the themes Cho examined a decade or so earlier.  Here, we’re looking at a younger generation, slightly more secure, but still struggling to make a living – most have a roof over their heads at least, but the price they’ve paid for this has been a shift away from the bright lights of Seoul.

An example of this can be found in ‘On Rainy Days I Have to Go to Karibong-dong’.  In this story, the family from the first piece are forced to seek help for repairs to their bathroom and leaky roof, and the man they find to help them turns out to have quite a story to tell.  Despite his skills, he struggles to make a living, and his placid facade finally cracks once the hard day’s work is done, a few drinks loosening his tongue enough for him to tell the story of his own problems.

Perhaps a closer connection to The Dwarf can be found in ‘The Underground Man’, where an exhausted factory worker struggles to obtain even the most basic of human requirements:

He scowled as he recalled the shameless face of Pak from the real estate office.  If it hadn’t been for the problem with the bathroom, he wouldn’t have thought ill of Pak.  A room in the basement suited his needs perfectly.  He was accustomed to the underground life.  Some day he would come aboveground, but right now, a room in the basement and a job in the basement were as precious as life itself.  His dream was so simple: Since he had to eat in order to work, he should have the freedom to relieve himself at will.
‘The Underground Man’, p.210

Yes, that’s right.  Living below ground, working below ground, rarely seeing the sun and unable to go to the toilet when he wants – that’s life for the working man in 1980s Korea…

For those who are not quite au-fait with the intricacies of life in South Korea in the eighties (i.e. most of us…), there’s a short introduction, presumably by the translators, which introduces Yang and briefly summarises her career.  Interestingly, this introduction touches on some of the more political elements of the collection and its implicit criticism of the government of the day.  Why implicit?  Well, in those days, as shown in novels like Shin Kyung-sook’s I’ll Be Right There and Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls, the government was not averse to putting critics in their place – and they certainly weren’t gentle about it.

A Distant and Beautiful Place is an excellent collection, and while I appreciate the work of the translators and the press, in a way it’s a shame that a book like this has ended up locked away in the university publishing system, where few people will stumble across it.  It’s probably a little dated now, what with the massive changes in Korean society over the past few decades, but you sense that this is the kind of book that would have found a wider audience if it had been properly marketed.  Still, for anyone with more than a superficial interest in Korean literature, this is certainly a book I’d recommend, and after two successes from two attempts, I’m definitely on the hunt for more of Yang’s books.  Sadly, I suspect, though, that finding more of her work in translation might prove to be a rather fruitless task…

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