While I’m keen to continue on my long-term reading course of Korean literature, I haven’t been able to try quite as many Korean works as I’d like this year (in fact, I still have a couple of library books from a few months back languishing on the shelves…). However, sometimes you just need to make a little time in your schedule, and when you receive a book in the post from one of the most respected translating partnerships in K-Lit, it’s time to put other books aside and get reading 😉
Hwang Sun-won’s The Moving Fortress (published by Merwin Asia, review copy courtesy of the translators Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is a reworking of one of the Fultons’ first translation efforts. According to the afterword, the original English version was released in 1985 under the title of The Moving Castle, and this retranslation, built on thirty years of extra experience, is apparently far shorter than the original Korean, cutting superfluous, repetitive language that the Fultons were not brave enough to excise first time around.
With most western readers unlikely to ever stumble across a copy of the original version, it’s good that Merwin Asia decided to commission a new edition, as The Moving Fortress is an excellent read and an interesting look at the Korea of around 1970. There are certain similarities with other works of the period (or slightly later), with hints of the social criticism that fuel Yang Gui-ja’s A Distant and Beautiful Place or Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf, yet in many ways Hwang’s work is a more rounded and compelling novel, with the social aspects taking a backseat to the story.
The story begins in the oddly named Rocky Hollow, around seven miles outside Seoul, where Songho, a Presbyterian minister in training, has settled. His choice of career has less to do with a calling than with the guilt he feels over an affair he had in his youth, his position among the poor surrounding the nation’s capital a sort of atonement for his weakness. It’s here that we also encounter Mingu, an old friend of Songho’s, who has a very different lifestyle. Despite being engaged to the daughter of a powerful church elder, he is a university lecturer obsessed with the native animist religion, in particular with the rituals of the mudang, or female shamans.
Moving outwards from this initial meeting, we follow the two men and are gradually introduced to several other important characters. There’s Unhui, Mingu’s fiancée, a spoiled young woman who suspects her partner is up to no good; Ch’angae, a beautiful designer who is to make Unhui’s wedding dress; Ch’angae’s estranged husband, Chunt’ae, an agricultural scientist stuck in a rut; his new acquaintance, Chiyon, a lonely woman who turns out to be good friends with Songho… These relationships are important, as The Moving Fortress relies less on plot than on the ties developing between the main characters, and the way they are influenced by the society they are living in.
One aspect of this is religion, foregrounded in the novel in a manner reminiscent of the importance of Catholicism in the work of Shusaku Endo. Songho is the only one of the group who is really in touch with the poorer levels of Korean society, seeing it as his Christian duty to help those less fortunate than himself (and there are plenty of those around). However, he can’t help but notice how his parishioners twist his message to suit their own beliefs, taking what they need from the imported religion:
“And so,” she said, pausing to take this in, “you have doubts about Korean Christians?”
“Maybe so. Perhaps we can’t digest religion in its true meaning.”
p.115 (Merwin Asia, 2015)
Still, worse is to come. When Songho’s early misdemeanours come to light, he’ll see just how hypocritical and unforgiving some Korean Christians can be.
What makes Hwang’s novel stand out from Endo’s work, for example, giving it a distinctly Korean air, is the fascinating juxtaposition of Christianity with native animist beliefs. Mingu’s research into shamanism draws the reader into an unfamiliar world, with his initial academic interest developing into something more. He finds himself increasingly attracted to the idea of a very different religion, trying to see connections between the traditional rites and more conventional church services (as, ironically enough, does Songho). Matters become even more complicated, though, in the presence of Pyon, a figure connected with shamanism – a character perhaps unique in all the Korean literature I’ve read for a good many reasons…
As much as the story looks at faith and inner turmoil, there is an underlying current of social tension, albeit not as clearly defined as in some other Korean novels. Most of the main characters are relatively well-off, middle-class citizens whose problems are more abstract than financial, yet they do allude to the tight control the government has over its people. This usually comes in the form of (slightly clumsy) allegories, such as in a discussion Chunt’ae has with a friend about hunting with hawks:
“That must have been the lesson for the rulers – it’s no good for your subjects to have full bellies. But not feeding the hawk doesn’t work either; likewise a ruler can’t starve his subjects and still benefit from them. You saw how I fed the hawk a chunk of chicken wrapped in feathers. That’s how the rulers deceived their subjects, making them think they wouldn’t starve as long as they worked to fill their stomachs. And so the rulers end up exploiting their subjects’ labor.”
“Leave it to you to come up with an off-the-wall analogy. Here,” said Chunt’ae, finishing his drink and returning the empty glass to P’ilchae, “let me give you a refill.” (p.144)
Each of the characters gradually comes to see themselves as slightly restricted in some way or another, whether by their partner, their work or their health. As mentioned above, not much really happens, but there’s always the sense that it might.
I wouldn’t say Hwang is the best Korean author I’ve read in terms of the actual quality of his writing at a sentence level, but he’s certainly an excellent story-teller. The great strength of The Moving Fortress is the way in which the lives of the main characters are cleverly intertwined, allowing us to see each one from several angles. At first, their chance encounters and hidden connections seemed a little fortuitous, but this is mainly due to the tight-knit nature of Korean society and the importance of relationships. On several occasions, one of the characters provides an important introduction to another, opening the door to a new circle of acquaintances. The more the novel progresses, the more we learn about Songho, Mingu and their friends, and Hwang does a pretty good job of making us interested in their (fairly bourgeois) troubles.
I doubt that this novel will usher in a new wave of interest in Hwang’s work (there’s only so much space in the general public consciousness for Korean literature, and I suspect that Han Kang and Bae Suah will be sucking up all that oxygen for the foreseeable future), but it’s a book many readers would enjoy. While the issues the characters face are universally recognisable, there’s a distinctive Korean element to the novel which sets it apart. Hwang is far better known for his shorter fiction, but The Moving Fortress would certainly make a good introduction to his work, a novel reflecting the era it was written in, yet universal enough to appeal even to those with a limited knowledge of Korean culture.