‘Kong’s Garden’ by Hwang Jung-eun (Review)

Today we’re taking a break from the MBIP longlist reviews to look at another short slice of K-Lit from ASIA Publishers.  I’ve already enjoyed several of the bilingual stories in the modern K-Fiction series, and today’s choice comes from a familiar name, and addresses a familiar topic.  Yes, once again, we’re looking at the struggles of life in the lower reaches of Korean society, a story of cats, bookshops and working for less than minimum wage…

*****
Hwang Jung-eun’s Kong’s Garden (translated by Jeon Seung-hee, review copy courtesy of the publisher) has a nameless narrator, a young woman working a series of casual jobs, reflecting on a time when she worked at a bookshop.  There’s little to separate the experience from her other jobs over the years except for an incident after which a schoolgirl vanished.  Questioned by the police (and tacitly blamed by some of the neighbourhood), the woman wonders where the girl could have disappeared to – and whether the old building the shop is situated in could provide some clues.

In truth, though, the story is less about this incident than the narrator’s own life.  As one of the few people in Korea with no tertiary education, she’s destined to have a mediocre life, despite her hard-working nature and an ability to get on with her work.  This is a tale of what it means to be dispensable in a developed economy – and we don’t even get her real name…

One Hundred Shadows (translated by Jung Yewon, published by Tilted Axis Press) was an excellent story of young people making their way through life away from the harsh glare of Korea’s ultra-competitive job market, and Kong’s Garden is a story very much in the same vein.  The book takes a snapshot of one slice of the narrator’s life, with her time at the bookshop representative of the many dead-end jobs she takes.  The only differences here are in the details: a semi-serious relationship which eventually fizzles out; the cats who take up residence in the bookstore garden; and the encounter one evening with the girl who disappears.

This encounter actually occurs quite late in the piece, with Jinju (a schoolgirl asking for cigarettes) arriving in the company of a couple of older men, one of whom becomes quite aggressive when the narrator doesn’t want to serve the girl.  As the customers leave, the narrator has a moment of doubt, wondering whether she should intervene (looking up at the trio, she’s slightly disturbed by the body language the girl displays).  However, before she can decide what to do, the small group has gone.  It’s the last time Jinju is seen alive.

The narrator was looking up at the customers because the bookshop is in the basement, and that’s no coincidence as the workplace acts as a metaphor for the narrator’s position in society.  Her own parents’ poverty has infected her with the realisation that life will always be a struggle, and even if she seems content with the way she’s drifting along, in some passages she shows that she knows her place:

If you don’t have relatives and you’re poor, you’d better not have a kid.  You should just die poor and without anyone.
p.73 (ASIA Publishers, 2016)

She’s strengthened in her views by the constant presence of her own poor, sick parents and her later encounter with Jinju’s mother.  It’s actually quite a sad life, one with no prospects – having seen off one lover, she believes that it might never happen again.

The English title comes from one of the cats in the bookstore garden, a fairly minor character, and this is because of the complexity behind the Korean choice.  The original title was 양의 미래 (Yang-ui mirae), which is translated in the commentary as “What’s in store for the unmarried lady?”.  In a very brief afterword, Hwang comments:

I feel there are certain connotations in this title, yang.  One might say I have certain conventional ideas about these women, who were called so-and-so yang.  I see them as women who never took front or center stage, women who appeared only briefly on the margins, or as girls who have always had to hold down jobs. (p.79)

Lee Kyung-jae’s critical commentary goes into more detail and introduces the idea of the precariat (which may sound familiar to many of my readers…).  He further explores the ideas behind ‘yang’, revealing an additional meaning of ‘sheep’, and adding that it’s used as part of the expression ‘scapegoat’.  This last nuance is particularly apt given the treatment the narrator experiences after Jinju’s disappearance.

Much of the behaviour shown in Kong’s Garden is familiar to anyone interested in Korean literature, but the Hwang personal touch is in the way her creation takes this all on the chin.  Although she’s had to work from an early age, it’s never really seemed to bother her:

I’ve realised this only recently.  I don’t feel like it is unfair and I haven’t regretted it.  That’s just how it is, I tell myself.  And that’s that.  It was embarrassing whenever I ran into classmates or peers at work.  Still, it wasn’t too bad.  I felt embarrassed for a moment and then quickly forgot about it.  I could always forget about it. (p.13)

However, the reader is unlikely to be so blasé about the slaps and threats she receives.  Once again, the commentary nicely points out the way in which the casual nature of the narrator’s acceptance of abuse and exploitation actually cleverly draws attention to it, focusing our attention on its unfair nature.

Despite a few errors here and there (and a need for some tighter proof-reading), these K-Fiction titles tend to be a step up from the earlier Modern Korean Literature books in terms of translation, editing and commentary, and Kong’s Garden is a good example of this.  At the end of the day, it is just a story, but it’s a successful one, with a useful commentary (some of the earlier pieces were simple summaries) and a decent translation.  Having enjoyed One Hundred Shadows, I appreciated the chance to read more of Hwang’s work – here’s hoping that more is on its way soon.

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