‘Modern Family’ by Cheon Myeong-Kwan / ‘Rust’ & ‘Swamp’ by Yang Gui-ja (Review)

IMG_5431When I  made my last visit to the uni library in January, little did I know that the two books I picked out that day were to lie around neglected for the following few months (in hindsight, with my January in Japan reading to consider, along with my Man Booker International Prize duties, I really should have known better…).  Still, I have a little more time now, and my staff access means that I’ve been able to hold on to the books for far longer than I would have thought.  Let’s see if these two, both by writers who have featured on the blog before, were worth the wait 😉

Some readers may remember the name Cheon Myeong-kwan from my post on the Ku Sang Young Writers Prize and his winning entry, ‘Homecoming’, and for those who liked the sound of that one, one of his longer works is now available, published in the US last year by White Pine PressModern Family (translated by Kyoung-lee Park) is narrated by 48-year-old Kim In-ho, a failed film director with a mountain of debts and a failed marriage:

Everything that could be sold was.  First on the list was a ten-year-old secondhand car.  It wasn’t long before the television, refrigerator, washing machine, and laptop were sold as well.  Those were soon accompanied by my books and video collections, leaving only a worn-out mattress in the middle of the room.  I’d have sold my body if I could, but who’d want a balding, forty-eight-year-old man?
p.9 (White Pine Press, 2015)

With nowhere to turn, a call from his elderly mother proves to be most timely, and before long he decides to swallow his pride and move back home.

As it turns out, he’s not the only one.  His elder brother Han-mo, a slightly simple layabout also known as Hammer, has been there ever since getting out of prison, but the arrival of their younger sister Mi-yeon (with her teenage daughter Min-gyeong in tow) is a surprise to everyone.  All of a sudden, the dysfunctional family is back under one roof, and with a long hot summer ahead (accompanied by Hammer’s dubious bodily hygiene), things are bound to erupt.  Blood may be thicker than water – but what if the blood’s not all that thick in the first place?

For anyone used to stories of government abuse, exploitation of workers or (going even further IMG_5429back) the struggle against Japanese colonialists, Modern Family is a bit of an eye-opener.  Cheon’s novel is populated by gangsters, prostitutes, bitter old ladies and teenagers with attitude, a welcome contrast to the usual po-faced literary fare.   Slapstick at times, violent and disturbing at others, the best comparison I can come up with is that of Ryū Murakami, and there are definite touches here of some of the Japanese writer’s lighter works.

There’s also a lot of humour in Modern Family (which is definitely rare in the K-Lit we see in English), but while it develops into a light-hearted family romp, with In-mo wondering what he’s done to end up in the middle of such a pack of losers, you do begin to wonder if there’s really anything of substance about the story, or whether it’s just a fun way to while away a couple of hours.  Watching In-mo and his family sink deeper into caricature is only entertaining for so long…

However, Cheon is a better writer than that, and he cleverly turns the story into a vehicle for In-mo to realise that despite his university education (and his one mainstream movie), he’s the failure of the family and that the others have been helping him.  Having realised his selfishness, he seeks redemption, and when the opportunity presents itself, he decides to put his family first for once, no matter how painful that might be.  In fact, this message of family first is developed nicely (and cleverly) over the second half of the book, and even if I wouldn’t exactly say that there’s a happy ending, things do work out, sort of 🙂

Another familiar name is Yang Gui-ja, with both Contradictions and A Distant and Beautiful Place reviewed on the blog last year.  Today’s choice is a slightly shorter book, though, one of the Jimoondang series of introductions to Korean authors, this one featuring two of Yang’s stories, ‘Rust’ and ‘Swamp’.

‘Swamp’, translated by Steven D. Capener, features a well-off housewife who decides to visit an old friend, a former teacher who has retired to the country.  As the two women prepare lunch and catch up on gossip, the teacher receives an unexpected phone call which changes the women’s plans.  An old friend, one she hasn’t seen for twenty years, is now in the country and is waiting for her at a shop near the house.  The narrator is quite happy for the man to join them for lunch, but she senses that there’s more to his visit than her friend is letting on.  Only later, when they drive him to the airport, however, does the full story come out.

IMG_5430With the story written in 1999, the twenty years ago takes us back to the late seventies, and anyone who has dabbled in K-Lit will be able to put the pieces together when told of a teacher who suddenly emigrated to the US and stayed there.  Another story which touches on this theme of intellectuals falling foul of the government is O Chonghui’s ‘Lake P’aro’, but Yang’s handling of the topic is a little softer (until, that is, the final pages when we see what finally drove the teacher to leave the country…).  A short piece, but well-constructed, ‘Swamp’ certainly measures up to some of Yang’s other work.

Which, unfortunately, is far more than I can say for the title story, ‘Rust’.  This one focuses on a man who, wanting to become a journalist, got sucked into working in magazine advertising instead.  It’s a much earlier piece, and while there is some interest in the man’s struggle to cope with a job he’s not cut out for, it’s nowhere near as interesting as ‘Swamp’.

The biggest problem, though, is that ‘Rust’ features another of those awful translations that you used to come across in Korean literature (thankfully, far less common now).  Ahn Jung-hyo is the culprit here, with the text full of stilted, uncomfortable language, in addition to containing some horrible mistakes.  Don’t believe me?  How about these:

To drive along the cruising lane only was very boring.
They were sensitive about the parking spots, as they would have to pull out of again in less than an hour.

All during this while his beige steed was asleep at a nearby parking lot, its rein tied to the pole.
The prospect (prospective!) client…
The advertisement (advertising!) company…

It’s a shame to end the post on this negative note, but as Korean literature begins to establish a small presence in the Anglosphere, it’s important to ensure that the translations are as professional as possible.  For every The Vegetarian, There A Petal Silently Falls or Nowhere to Be Found, there’s (unfortunately) a One Spoon on This Earth or a ‘Rust’, showing how far the art of literary translation from Korean to English has come (and had to come).  Let’s hope that this improving trend continues and that we can eventually put efforts like this one far behind us…

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