‘One Hundred Shadows’ by Hwang Jungeun (Review)

shadowsAfter the intensity of Women in Translation Month, there’s a tendency to go back to what you know (I do have plenty of great books by men on my shelves too…), so I thought it would be nice to set aside another week to make sure I continue to try female writers’ work too.  Having also neglected my Korean reading a little recently, I found the perfect solution by making the first week of October a personal Korean Women Writers’ Week.  Watch out this week for five writers, three books and three posts – starting today!

Hwang Jungeun’s One Hundred Shadows (translated by Jung Yewon, electronic review copy courtesy of Tilted Axis Press) is a contemporary Korean novel, narrated by a young woman called Eungyo.  She works at a shop repairing old appliances, and in the course of her duties, she often runs into Mujae, a young man working at another shop on a lower level of the large, old building her shop is located in.  The two get along well, and part of the interest of the novel is following a slow-burning love story between two nice (shy) people.

However, their place of work, a rambling market complex consisting of five main buildings plus a warren of alleyways and little stands, also features prominently.  Time has finally caught up with the market, and the sudden plans to knock the buildings down cast a metaphorical shadow over the lives of the market workers.  That’s nothing, though, compared to the problems some of the characters experience with their literal shadows.  As times get tough, they begin to rise up and peel away from their owners – that can’t be a good thing…

Tilted Axis Press is a new publisher, set up to provide voices for writers from the margins.  With Deborah Smith, translator of Man-Booker-International-Prize-winning The Vegetarian, at the helm, it’s little surprise that one of their first books comes from South Korea (there’s another link here to The Vegetarian in the form of a short foreword from Han Kang herself).  The website introduces One Hundred Shadows as ‘an oblique, hard-edged novel’, which is actually slightly misleading – there’s nothing hard-edged about this book.

In fact, Hwang’s short novel is a delicate construction, a work in scenes following the nascent relationship between Eungyo and Mujae.  The young woman has ended up at the market after problems earlier in life:

It was my father who got me the job at Mr. Yeo’s repair shop, through a loose thread of acquaintances.  I left school when I was seventeen.  I went through some things – bullying – that couldn’t simply be dismissed as the usual kid’s stuff.
p.73 (Tilted Axis Press, 2016)

The fact of being a school dropout is one of many things which connects Eungyo to Mujae, and she comes to enjoy his sporadic visits to her shop.  Their relationship extends beyond work to walks in the woods, weekend outings and evenings spent at cheap noodle joints nursing beer and makkoli rice wine.  There’s nothing physical in their expressions of love, but in the time they spend together, we can see how close they’ve become.

Korean novels can often be full of rage against iniquity and inequity, but One Hundred Shadows isn’t one of those books.  The writing is beautifully evocative of a normal life, filled with everyday conversations and rain slowly falling on summer days, and the outside world and the wider economy are seen obliquely, if at all.  When the decision is made to tear down one of the market buildings, Mr. Yeo and Eungyo shrug their shoulders and life goes on.  Even when the outside world does momentarily intrude, in the shape of the boisterous office workers at the local bar, after one casual glance Eungyo and Mujae ignore them – this simply isn’t their story.

Of course, that’s not to say that the young lovers are able to shut the world out completely.  As Mujae muses, the impending destruction of the buildings and the traders’ way of life is hardly something they can completely ignore:

The essence of human life, if there is such a thing, is futility, that’s the way it’s always been and the way it always will be, and so there’s no call to make a fuss about it.  That’s what I thought, anyway.  But lately my thoughts have been somewhat different. (pp.126/7)

In addition to the main characters, the book is peppered with minor figures.  There’s a man selling old light-bulbs which went out of production years ago, a woman selling cheap snacks at the front of the building, the young man with a lottery obsession who calls by every so often for a chat.  When the buildings come down, this community is dispersed, and these characters disappear forever…

The sense of economic uncertainty is perhaps best expressed in the story of the shadows.  There are several reports of them lifting up, moving without their owners, tempting people to follow them:

If you spot someone who looks just like you, it’s your shadow, and once your shadow rises it’s over for you, because shadows are very persistent, because you can’t bear not to follow your shadow once it’s risen. (p.20)

While you might expect this to sound a little bizarre in the everyday world of the electronics shops, Hwang handles the idea well.  It’s casually mentioned, with the topic periodically coming up in conversation, and there’s a sense of the inevitable in that it seems to happen to everyone sooner or later.  I saw it as an allegory for letting go, reflecting the moment when life becomes that little bit too much.

One Hundred Shadows is an excellent story, notable more for the gaps than the action, and Jung Yewon’s translation reads excellently.  In places the novel is distinctly Korean (Park Min-gyu’s excellent Pavane for a Dead Princess is one book that comes to mind), yet it’s reminiscent of a lot of Japanese fiction too.  It may be a cliché to compare Asian books with Haruki Murakami’s work, but there are certainly comparisons to be made with some of his shorter, less bizarre work (perhaps After Dark).  However, the way the young couple’s relationship progresses reminds me of another recent read, Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop – which I mean as a compliment 🙂

Unlike in many countries, Korean women are at the forefront of the country’s literary output.  A new generation of writers like Han Kang and Bae Suah have already followed on from trailblazers such as Park Wan-suh, O Chong-hui and Ch’oe Yun, and hopefully many of the latest crop of female writers (e.g. Jang Eun-jin or Kim Ae-ran) will have more work in English soon.  Hwang is an addition to this list, and One Hundred Shadows is another entertaining work unearthed.  If that’s what Tilted Axis are about, then they can consider this a job well done 🙂

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