‘Dishonored’ by Choi Min-woo & ‘Hot Air Balloon’ by Son Bo-mi (Review)

The multicoloured K-Fiction books from Asia Publishers have been a welcome addition to the Korean section of my personal library, and while they’re only short stories really, the inclusion of writers’ notes, a critical commentary and (of course) the original Korean text, make them well worth a look.  Today, I’m checking out another two from the first set of books, a couple of stories I didn’t get around to when they first appeared.  Two writers (one male, one female) from the new generation – I wonder which story will be more to my liking?

Choi Min-woo’s ‘Dishonored’  (translated by Jeon Seung-hee, review copy courtesy of the publisher) begins with a man called Black watching another man, Yellow:

Yellow hesitated for a moment at the bus stop in front of the hotel, but got on the yellow bus that arrived soon afterwards.  Black knew which stop he would get off at, where he would go after that, and what he would do at night.  But none of that really mattered.
What really mattered to him at the moment was that he did not know whether or not he should keep on following Yellow’s schedule.
p.11 (Asia Publishers, 2014)

It’s clear from the first pages that ‘Dishonored’ is a spy story, and Choi quickly fills in the back-story of a retired agent gone rogue, living in a foreign country and threatening to reveal a lot of dirty secrets in a book.  Black has been sent from their home country to see if he can bring the traitor home, although Black’s boss makes it clear that accidents do often happen…

The problem is that in the course of Black’s preparations for the task, the situation changes drastically.  There’s a coup back in his homeland, and when he phones for new orders, he’s given conflicting advice.  To make matters worse, he’s not always sure who he’s even talking to, or what side they’re on.  For a man who has always believed in one thing, and one thing only – his job -, this turn of affairs leaves Black in the unusual situation of having to think for himself.  Should he continue with his task, or follow the latest orders, which may not even be from his boss?

‘Dishonored’ is a nice twist on a spy story, and in his author’s note Choi stresses his wish to create a Korean version of the kind of story usually seen through western eyes.  There are several local touches, including the way Black’s local contact Brown fawns over him, asking to call him ‘Hyeong-nim’ (‘Elder Brother’) and the reason for Yellow’s initial betrayal (a slight insult that his upbringing can’t allow him to forgive).  The key to it all is how Black copes when the contact to his employers is lost.  The consummate professional, he’s a follower, not a leader, and in the confusion of the post-coup period, he’s forced to think for himself, a scary proposition for many people (even if they are charged with jobs slightly less challenging than murdering a former colleague…).

I wouldn’t say it’s anything out of the ordinary, but I did enjoy the story, and it was interesting to see Choi mention an influence on the work in his author’s note.  Inspiration for the names (as many readers will immediately suspect) comes from Paul Auster’s Ghosts, and while ‘Dishonored’ isn’t on that level, you can see the parallels in the way our coloured friends are never quite sure why they’re behaving as they do.

Son Bo-mi’s ‘Hot Air Balloon’ (translated by Jamie Chang, review copy courtesy of the publisher), while equally mysterious in parts, is a very different affair.  It revolves around a central male character, showing pivotal events throughout his life, alternating with scenes from his present and a conversation with his latest girlfriend.  As we learn about his mother’s early death, his steady progression through school, university and the army, and a series of failed relationships, it appears as if his life is one long road with a few bumps along the way.  However, one evening, he notices seven lights hanging in the sky, and suddenly he realises that things aren’t so great after all.

Son’s story is a clever affair, using a two-strand approach with the present-day scenes interspersed among the events of the boy/man’s life.  It’s not until the end of the story that it all begins to make sense, and on a reread I was able to see how all the pieces fitted together.  The style is fairly muted, but comfortable, and that actually hides the overwhelming sense of sorrow and depression that should be suffusing the story.  The first time I read the book, it took me a while (and a shove in the right direction from the critical commentary) to realise the extent of the main character’s depression.

The focal point of the story is provided by the seven lights hanging in the sky, which the man sees as hot air balloons, before wondering whether they might actually be UFOs.  After looking back to a childhood scene in which UFOs play a major role, the man eventually sees one of the lights again and is tempted to pursue it through the cold Seoul night.  On a second reading, the allegories were a little clearer, with the man’s depression leading him to look for a way out, as he has already hinted at in letters he wrote in his youth:

He wrote letters sometimes.  The letters were not about anything important, but most of them contained the line, “I think it was me who should have died then.”
p.27 (Asia Publishers, 2014)

So, who’s going to stop him spiralling into depression?  In best Buzzfeed fashion, the answer may surprise you…

Once again, there a great writer’s note here with Son explaining the inspiration for the story and how it gradually developed from several sources.  However, one of the best parts of ‘Hot Air Balloon’ for me is Roh Ji-young’s excellent critical commentary, in which she ties the events of the story to one of Son’s earlier pieces.  Early in ‘Hot Air Balloon’, the main character’s father is injured in an explosion at a concert he takes his son to, and Roh carefully explains how the same concert (and the blanket that the father took to keep the boy warm) are first used in the earlier story ‘Blanket’, but in a very different way.  These meta-fictional elements in the story certainly aroused my interest, and I would love to compare the two pieces if anyone ever gets around to translating the other one 😉

Of the two stories, my favourite would definitely be ‘Hot Air Balloon’, but they’re both worth a read, especially if you’re keen to learn more about the new wave of Korean writers.  I’ve still got a couple of these books to go, so watch out for another look at modern Korean fiction very soon 🙂

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