‘The Last of Hanak’o’ by Ch’oe Yun & ‘Christmas Specials’ by Kim Ae-ran (Review)

img_5565One of the major issues in the world of fiction in translation revolves around gender and the lack of books by women making it into English, but Korean literature seems to be an area that bucks this trend.  Several of my favourite Korean writers are women, and most of the few successes in English have come from female authors (you know who I’m talking about…).  Today’s post looks at a couple of short works by two more excellent writers, one well established with a few books in English, the other still waiting for a full-length debut in (English) translation – let’s hope that changes soon 🙂

Ch’oe Yun could probably be considered as one of her country’s senior writers now, and I’ve enjoyed her work before, notably in the form of the three novellas making up the collection There a Petal Silently Falls (I’m also hoping to get to her newest work in English, Mannequin, from the latest batch of Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature series).  Outside these, though, possibly her most famous story is ‘The Last of Hanak’o’ (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, review copy courtesy of ASIA Publishers), one I’ve read on several occasions.  It was one of the standout pieces in the Wayfarer anthology, but sadly it didn’t make it into the revised version, The Future of Silence.

The story begins with a man in Italy on business who decides to take a detour to Venice.  Theimg_5567 reason for the trip is a plan to visit a woman he used to know, one with whom he’s lost touch.  It all sounds like a nice way to spend a few days, but if that’s so, why is he so nervous – and why doesn’t he want to make the call?

‘The Last of Hanak’o’ is a story in two strands, and while the first follows the man wandering the city pondering his dilemma, the other, set back in Seoul, promises to shed light on the puzzle.  It’s here that we are introduced to the person he has come to Italy to meet:

There was a woman.  This woman had a name, to be sure, a name that did not exactly charm their metropolitan sensibility, but this was not the reason for their code word.  And not once had they used that nickname to her face.
p.19 (ASIA Publishers, 2012)

Gradually, a portrait of the enigmatic Hanak’o (a nickname derived from her cute nose, her most noticeable feature) emerges, a woman at ease in a group of male friends and who knows how to make them feel special.  Until, that is, something goes terribly wrong…

Ch’oe’s tale is a story that pulls you in, slowly uncovering more about Hanak’o while keeping her at a distance.  In truth, the piece is just as much about the men who surround her, happy to catch up for drinks and dinner but showing a strange lack of curiosity about the person beneath the attractive exterior.  Their behaviour appears to be symptomatic of a male-dominated society, where the woman’s role is to entertain and comfort men – and yet even though Hanak’o plays the role to perfection, the friends feel uneasy in their relationship with her.

The story unfolds at a masterly pace, and while it’s clear from the beginning that something is coming, we’re never quite sure what.  Even when we eventually arrive at the pivotal scene, it’s hard to tell exactly what happened, and why.  All we know for sure is that for the men of the group, the time spent with Hanak’o represents a golden age, one ended by their dumb antics.  Now, decades later, with failed marriages and spreading waistlines, they’re still living in the past while Hanak’o has moved on…

If Ch’oe is from the older generation, Kim Ae-ran is a representative of the modern wave of Korean writers.  I recently enjoyed her stories ‘The Future of Silence’ and ‘Where Would You Like to Go?’, and today’s choice is another one from the ASIA Publishers Modern Korean Literature series entitled ‘Christmas Specials’ (tr. Jamie Chang).

Christmas Eve is a night for lovers in Korea, but if Kim’s story is anything to go by, the evening doesn’t always go to plan.  We follow a brother and sister as they go about their very different ways of celebrating the occasion.  The brother is spending the evening alone, walking home with a small box of ramen noodles to the small apartment he shares with his sister, ready for a night of trying not to look at porn on the computer while almost being driven to do so by the dire quality of the night’s telly (the Christmas ‘specials’ of the title).

img_5568Meanwhile, his sister’s evening is a little more exciting.  She’s out with her long-term boyfriend on what is their first real Christmas date together, and the plans call for a movie, a meal and some time in a rented room to finish the night off.  The first part of the evening goes well enough, but as the couple cruise around looking for a place to spend the night, you sense that their Christmas may well end up worse than that spent by the woman’s brother…

The two strands of ‘Christmas Specials’ combine to create an interesting story of two young people from the so-called 880,000-won generation (c.f. Chang Kangmyoung’s ‘Fired’).  They represent the insecure young workers of the Korean capital who are unable to afford a decent place of their own on their meagre salaries, and Kim does a wonderful job of showing the practical issues involved – for example, when the brother reflects on a romantic moment with his ex:

His heart whispered, “Now’s the time.  The moment when you know it’s now or never.”  As if saying something of great importance, wishing she would hear his heart loud and clear, he stressed each syllable: “I love you.”
She caressed his face with one hand.  He looked at her with hopeful eyes.  Her lips parted slowly, and as she was about to send him an answer straight from her heart, a herd of children flocked past their window and one of them yelled, “You fuckwad!  That’s not what I meant!  That bastard’s always like that!”

p.17 (ASIA Publishers, 2013)

Privacy is a wonderful thing, if you can afford it…

‘Christmas Specials’ reads well for the most part (although a few passages, unfortunately, suffer from poor translation – or editing), and Kim uses the present tense cleverly in places.  It’s as if we’re taking a step back, observing the characters though a hidden camera.  Overall, it’s a documentary-like tale of young people struggling to make ends meet, but surprisingly it’s never too bleak, with plenty of humour and a hint of hope.  It’s not the best of the three stories I’ve read so far, but there’s still enough here to have me hoping for more of Kim’s work to make it into English – so if there’s anyone out there with the ability to make that happen… 😉

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