It’s been a while since I last read one of the books from the Dalkey Archive Library of Korean Literature series, but today marks my thirteenth review from the collection. While I still have a couple on my shelves, this is a special post as it rounds off my look at the initial ten books (it’s taken me long enough…). It’s a short one, but there’s a lot there to enjoy whether you’re keen on social commentary or teenagers doing what they do best. Let’s take a trip to Daegu…
Jang Jung-il’s When Adam Opens His Eyes (translated by Hwang Sun-ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a year in the life of a young Korean student, a boy like any other of his age around the world:
I was nineteen years old, and the things I most wanted to have were a typewriter, prints of Munch’s paintings and a turntable for playing records. Those things alone were all that I wanted from the world when I was nineteen. But so humble were my desires that, in comparison, my mother’s wish for me to enter Seoul National University, or my younger cousin’s dream of joining the Samsung Lions baseball team when he grew up, seemed even more out of reach.
p.5 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
There are some differences, though. Having failed the notoriously competitive national university entrance exam, rather than opting for a lesser institution our friend decides to have another shot at making it into Seoul University – which means a year of keeping his head down at a cram school in the city.
Within a couple of months, though, this idea goes out of the window. Adam (a name he was given by an ex-girlfriend for being her first sexual experience) quickly gets bored with the student-in-purgatory existence, instead roaming the streets of Daegu and reading in the library by day, and watching people dancing in clubs at night. When he meets Hyun-jae, a high-school girl trying to let off some steam, Adam’s year off begins to get more interesting, but the two know full well they’re only hiding from the inevitable. Korea’s brutal society will always get you in the end…
When Adam Opens His Eyes runs to about one-hundred pages, making up one year in the life of its protagonist, twelve months in which he learns a lot about himself and moves towards deciding what it is he wants to do with his life. There’s something very Norwegian Wood about the premise, but while it was written around the same time as Haruki Murakami’s novel, Jang’s story is set much later, running from late 1987 until after the Olympic Games of the following year. For a foreign reader, it helps to know that this was a time of change in South Korea, with a weak form of democracy just around the corner, even if the violent demonstrations of the eighties hadn’t yet died away completely.
Not that Adam himself is too caught up in the political events of the era. He takes advantage of his year off to relax after the hell of high-school study, sleeping around when he can and using his time to read, write, translate and generally experience as much of life as possible. With his brother having fled to the US to study in a more congenial atmosphere (and his mother working all hours cleaning toilets to give her children a future), he is left to his own devices, enjoying his brief moment of freedom.
His experience is mirrored by that of Hyun-jae, to whom he is attracted right from their first encounter. In many ways, she throws herself even more into hedonism than Adam, desperate to relieve the stress of her final year of school. She wanders in and out of Adam’s life, random encounters throughout the city inevitably leading to sex, hoping that she can forget the pressure she’s under, at least temporarily. Sadly, she (like the reader) is only too aware that this is a brief interval of happiness before the crushing weight of Korean society comes down on her again.
While I mentioned Norwegian Wood earlier, When Adam Opens His Eyes is far more reminiscent of the work of Ryū Murakami. There’s a little violence, some self-abuse and a fair amount of sex (in many positions and with a range of partners). In truth, though, it’s far tamer than what you might find in, for example, Almost Transparent Blue, and the blurb’s claim that “…this is a sensational and highly controversial novel…” only goes to show how conservative Korea was in the late eighties.
As a Bildungsroman, it works well enough, though, and Adam’s growth throughout the year towards the decision he makes about his future contrasts with Hyun-jae’s tragic downward spiral:
She told me she believed in reincarnation and that she was very fearful of being reborn as a high-school student in Korea. “Being reborn as an insect because of my many sins would be much better,” she observed. (p.59)
It seems that ‘Hell Choseon’, the view of Korean society as a Dantean underworld, is no new phenomenon. It just remains to be seen how Adam manages to find his own slice of Eden.
But there’s more…
Tacked on to the main show is a short story, ‘The Seventh Day’, and it’s here that the gushing praise of the blurb might be more appropriate. It begins with a couple in bed and a description of a tender coupling, before going back to where the two met – they bump into each other at a bank’s cash machine and notice that they’re reading the same book. How sweet 🙂
Erm, no. That book happens to be George Bataille’s Eroticism, and over the seven days of Jang’s story, the couple’s antics become ever more disturbing, violent and, let’s say, mindblowing. ‘The Seventh Day’ turns out to be an exercise in pushing the envelope in a way When Adam Opens His Eyes only really hints at; while the novella is interesting enough in its own right, particularly in its look at society, many will see something far more fascinating in this added extra 🙂