‘Familiar Things’ by Hwang Sok-yong (Review)

If asked to name my favourite female Korean writer, I’d be hard-pressed to choose one from a host of great authors, with Bae Suah, Ch’oe Yun, Han Kang and O Chong-hui among the frontrunners.  However, on the male side, my choice is a lot clearer.  Nine times out of ten, the first name I’d come up with would be Hwang Sok-yong, so the (very) recent release of his latest work to make it into English was a cause for celebration around these parts.  Happily, the book more than lived up to expectations, and while it’s a fairly short novel, Hwang once again shows he’s a master of skewering the conceit of the Miracle on the Han, exposing the guilty little secrets many people would rather he left hidden…

Familiar Things (translated by Sora Kim-Russell, review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications) is set in the late seventies in Seoul, but takes us to a very different part of the Korean capital than those we usually visit.  Bugeye, a worldly-wise thirteen year old, is on his way with his mother to a new home after she received a job offer from an acquaintance:

“It’s just a shack, but you won’t have to pay rent.  You’ll make three times what you make now.  Where else are you going to find a deal like that?”
p.6 (Scribe Publications, 2017)

It’s only when they arrive that the youngster realises where their new home is – on Flower Island, the site of the city’s main waste landfill.  As the boy struggles to come to terms with the smell, the filth and the flies, he’s soon missing his old haunts back in the city.

He’s even less content when he sees his new home, a shack knocked up by the Baron, his mother’s new foreman (and very soon her lover too).  However, he gradually adjusts to his new home, mainly with the help of the Baron’s son, Baldspot, a simple boy with the run of the island.  Together, the boys explore the areas outside the tip, and as they venture further afield, Bugeye discovers that there’s a lot more to life on the island than meets the eye, particularly if you can keep an open mind as to what might be down by the river.

Familiar Things is a fairly short novel, and a relatively easy read, but it’s also highly entertaining and thought-provoking.  It takes place in the late seventies, with the scene set for the local audience by mentions of the General taking power (and for me by mentions of Star Wars…) and is another work in the tradition of books critiquing Korea’s rapid industrialisation.  Hwang is an expert at peeling back the skin on the wounds of Korea’s recent past, and here he turns his attention to the end stages of consumerism.  Seoul is now a booming metropolis – but where does all the rubbish go?

Flower Island is a pretty name for a filthy place, and Hwang takes us there and explains how it all works.  What we are shown is a parallel society where workers root through the rubbish to find salvageable and saleable goods.  Like any society, there are strict rules here, with the rubbish from different districts being disposed of in separate areas.  The workers hoping to find treasure amongst the trash are forced to buy permits (the better the loot, the more they have to pay), but they are merely the bottom rung of a whole industry with thousands of people living (literally) off the scraps.

With a whole community required to sift through the rubbish, a shanty town of shacks has appeared around the edges of the garbage.  However, while it helps everyone make ends meet, trawling through the trash isn’t easy:

The garbage was dirty and ugly, but it was also black and white and red and blue and yellow and iridescent and shiny, and it was smooth and square and angular and round and long and limp and stiff, and it refused to budge and it sprang out of the pile and it rolled down the slope, and it smelled acrid and it smelled foul, and it made your breath catch and your nose run and it made you gag, but above all, none of it looked familiar. (pp.33/4)

When the workers go out to let off steam after a hard week at the tip, they find themselves shunned by the normal folk (because of the ever-present smell…), needing to bathe extensively and keep clothes handy somewhere off the island if they want to be allowed in anywhere.  A more worrying issue, though, is the danger of life on the island.  There’s always the chance of a drunken brawl, of course, but with so much rubbish around, it’s the risk of an accident which usually plays on the workers’ minds.

Yet Hwang isn’t the kind of writer who allows all this to cast a pall over his writing, and he’s quick to point out the bright side of life on the margins, including the sense of camaraderie the workers share.  We are shown a very different four seasons, with life at the tip marked by events such as the excess of coal briquettes and cabbage leaves during kimchi making season, or rather more palatable waste around Chuseok (autumn harvest festival) time:

City folk were always throwing out perfectly good food that they’d either been unable to finish and had let go untouched or had bought too much of and grew sick of eating.  Once-frozen rice wrapped in plastic, now slimy and defrosted.  Plastic bags, chockfull of shucked oysters.  Whole fish, dried out and leathery.  Hunks of meat, still frozen.  Yellowed heads of cabbage that were still fresh once you peeled off the wilted outer leaves.  Bucket upon bucket of fish heads and tails and guts thrown out of the fish market at dawn, and perfectly edible parts of the fish left over after the day’s sale.  At this time of year, every night was a feast for the people of Flower Island. (p.86/7)

All that might not seem so appetising to the spoiled reader, but to Bugeye and his friends, it’s a meal fit for a king…

This description of life on the edges would be more than enough for one book, but Hwang actually has a few more tricks up his sleeve.  In addition to the description of the new extended family that comes together, we see how Bugeye and Baldspot make some other new acquaintances:

Baldspot pointed wordlessly to the right.  Bugeye squinted at the silver grass waving along the western edge of the river.  He saw something – first one blue light, then two, then three and four.  They were moving slowly.  The next moment, the lights were moving quickly, then stopping, then moving again, making their way down the river away from the boys.  And then, all at once, they disappeared. (pp.88/9)

Ever heard of dokkaebi?  The word will no doubt be familiar to fans of Korean dramas, and here we get to meet these Korean spirits.  In a similar vein to his flights of fancy in The Guest and Princess Bari, Hwang manages to have the modern world coexist with its shadow side as the boys get to see how life used to be on Flower Island before the rubbish trucks rolled in.  This ghostly sub-plot nicely complements the more mundane day-to-day trials and tribulations and never becomes overpowering or ludicrous.

Familiar Things is another Korean novel of the effects of industrialisation, a story of waste and destruction, and people living outside mainstream society.  However, Hwang’s work always has a fair amount of hope blended in too.  He stresses the way people always manage to get on with their lives, even under difficult circumstances, and hints that life is a cycle, and that the future may bring brighter days.  As the boys leave the tip and follow the blue lights to a better place, there’s a suggestion that once the obsession with progress abates, all this will one day return…

4 thoughts on “‘Familiar Things’ by Hwang Sok-yong (Review)

  1. Great review, Tony. I read this book a weekend or so ago but haven’t had time to blog about it. I was worried the ghost element would overshadow the real story here (that industrialisation and consumerism comes at a cost and that a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats) but as you point out it’s never ludicrous. It’s actually a nice device for showing us (and the boys) that the island wasn’t always such a hellhole.


    1. Kim – Hwang’s very good at introducing supernatural elements without allowing them to take over from the rest of the plot, and he does it well again here. This is the fifth(?) of his books I’ve read, and I’m hoping more will appear in English soon 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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