With all due respect to people like Deborah Smith and Sora Kim-Russell, when it comes to big-name Korean-to-English literary translators, there’s only one name which comes to mind – and two people ;) Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton have been bringing the best of Korean literature into English for decades now, and they’ve provided me with a fair chunk of the reading I’ve enjoyed over the past few years. Interestingly enough, in recent times the couple have been going back to their translation roots: my most recent review of one of their translations was a reworking of one of their first efforts, Hwang Sun-won’s The Moving Fortress, and today’s offering also revisits a book published a while back. However, the work on this one has gone far beyond a light re-edit…
The Future of Silence – Fiction by Korean Women (review copy courtesy of Zephyr Press) is a new version of the 1997 collection Wayfarer – New Fiction by Korean Women, an excellent anthology of short stories by female Korean writers (which I reviewed here a couple of years back). With that book now out of print, the Fultons have found a new home for some of the stories, keeping five of the eight original contributions and adding four new pieces from a younger generation. In doing so, they’ve created a book reflecting five decades of Korean literature, showing the shift in focus of the stories over the years.
The standout story from the original selection is still O Chong-hui’s ‘Wayfarer’, a piece depicting a woman’s struggle to reintegrate herself into society after a traumatic experience. For a western reader, her story may be rather confusing, with friends and family abandoning her in a way which would be unthinkable in other societies. Having learned a lot more about Korea since the first time I read this story, I also enjoyed the little cultural touches, such as the descriptions of Seoul at night, but it’s the way O withholds information, only gradually revealing details of the event that caused the woman’s breakdown, that makes the story so compelling.
Two of the writers, Pak Wan-so (Park Wan-suh) and Kim Chi-won, passed away between the publication of the two books, and the new edition is dedicated to their memory. I’m still not a fan of Pa(r)k’s cheery, brash style, but ‘Identical Apartments’ does put an interesting slant on the common Korean theme of city living. Meanwhile, Kim’s ‘Almaden’ (revised by the Fultons in accordance with the writer’s wishes) describes the stark contrast between a woman’s dull life working in a liquor store and her fantasies of running off with a man who regularly drops by for a bottle of wine.
Kong Son-ok’s ‘The Flowering of Our Lives’ is another story which never really grabbed me, the selfish tale of a woman neglecting her daughter in the same way her own mother abandoned her, but So Young-on’s ‘Dear Distant Love’ does a far better job of portraying a woman trodden down by society (and a truly horrible lover). Despite being used and abused, her child taken from her to grow up with the lover’s family, there is a glow to the central character that belies her situation. Her strength shines through, even if the lover can’t see it (and certainly doesn’t deserve it…).
So far, The Future of Silence has merely mirrored Wayfarer, but the addition of four new stories from a younger generation has the effect of showing the major changes in Korean writing over the past decade. Where the older stories (including the three cut for this new book) focused very much on women and their misfortunes, the younger writers have moved on, looking for new themes to examine, no longer tied to laments about a male-dominated society.
In Ch’on Un-yong’s ‘Ali Skips Rope’, we have a very different theme, with the girl at the centre of the story forced to struggle and defend herself against abuse:
It’s no accident that I’m fodder for the neighborhood delinquents. I’m a target. A target that gives bullies a sense of belonging. If you’re in a gang, the first person you target is someone who’s different. And my skin, my eyelids, and my nose are most definitely different from theirs. So I’m different from them. Which means I’m a threat to them, something engraved in their consciousness, something they have to expel. That’s why they form a barrier in front of me whenever we cross paths.
‘Ali Skips Rope’, p.139 (Zephyr Press, 2016)
Kim Ali has been given her unusual name by her father, a former boxer, and she draws on the great man’s strength to deal with the daily existence of a child with foreign blood in a country which is still largely monocultural. As Ali steels herself to float like a butterfly (and, if possible, sting like a bee), supported by her aunt and grandma, its hard not to warm to her and will her on in her attempt to master the complexities of double skipping (writing this on the day after Muhammad Ali’s death, I can’t help but see this story as yet another example of the boxer’s worldwide renown and affection…).
Things are a little crazier, though, in Kim Sagwa’s blood-soaked rampage ‘It’s One of Those the-More-I’m-in-Motion-the-Weirder-it-Gets Days and It’s Really Blowing My Mind’ (yes, that is the title…). In a story with definite nods to the crazed style of some Kim Young-ha stories, an office drone rages inside, struggling with a suffocating atmosphere:
Suddenly the space that enclosed me began to fold in on itself. The eatery was collapsing toward me. I was terrified. I told myself I’d endure…
‘It’s One of Those the-More-I’m-in-Motion-the-Weirder-it-Gets Days and It’s Really Blowing My Mind’, p.116
Spoiler alert – he doesn’t. He *really* doesn’t😉
Of the additional pieces, the shortest, Han Yujoo’s ‘I Ain’t Necessarily So’, is probably my least favourite. Running to just under five pages, it features the ramblings of a writer playing with words, with the left hand and right hand having different agendas. It’s clever enough, but I’m not sure it really works, particularly as the play on the similarity of the Korean homophones ‘horse’ and ‘word’ doesn’t really come across into English.
When it comes to the title story of the collection, though, I can safely say that the best has been left for last. Kim Ae-ran is a name I’ve come across several times, without ever managing to try her work, and after reading ‘The Future of Silence’, it’s something I regret. This is easily the standout story of the collection, a dazzling tale of the Museum of Moribund Languages, an establishment devoted to housing and recording the sole surviving speakers of minor tongues:
If you can imagine teeming bugs exposed to daylight when the rock covering them is lifted, if you can imagine them scuttling off, that’s what the Babel of languages is like here. The syntax, the tenses, the melody that only the gods can decipher and delight in – if on the five lines of a musical score you were to notate for each of the languages the masculine and feminine, the singular and plural, active and passive, low speech and honorifics, you would have a majestic orchestral performance of the heptatonic scale of human vocal sounds: the velar, the lingual, the bilabial, the dental, the semi-dental, the nasal and the guttural.
‘The Future of Silence’, p.175
As beautiful as that may sound, the feeling underpinning the story is one of sadness, with the residents of the museum knowing that they will never have a real conversation in their mother tongue again – and that with their death, the language dies too. There’s only one way to describe Kim’s work here, Borgesian, and that’s intended as a huge compliment.
The Future of Silence is an excellent introduction to female Korean writers, showing a range of different styles and themes, and even if I’m sorry Ch’oe Yun’s story ‘The Last of Hanak’o’ was one of the three stories cut for this new book (although, as Charles Montgomery points out in his review of The Future of Silence, it’s a story available in several places elsewhere), there’s plenty here for everyone to enjoy, including an excellent introduction examining both the writers featured here and literature by Korean women in general. And who do we have to thank for all this? The Fultons, of course – long may they continue to bring great Korean literature into the English language for us all to enjoy🙂