It’s become a bit of a cliché to be surprised by the number of female writers being translated into English from Korean, but like many clichés there’s a fair amount of truth behind it. Late-twentieth-century translations may still be dominated by men, but in terms of twenty-first-century literature, it’s definitely women like Han Kang and Bae Suah leading the way. Over the past few months, I’ve introduced several other writers here on the blog, such as Hwang Jung-eun, Kim Ae-ran and Han Yujoo, and today sees us taking a look at a book by a writer who might be the next to gain a following in the west. A new name, then, but certainly not a new theme – the stories today are very familiar for anyone with an interest in the ups and downs of Korean culture.
Pyun Hye Young’s Evening Proposal (translated by Youngsuk Park and Gloria Cosgrove Smith, electronic review copy courtesy of Dalkey Archive Press) is yet another work from the Library of Korean Literature series. Once again, we have a collection of short stories (eight in total, each about twenty-pages long), and while the pieces have no real connection in terms of characters or content, there are some strong themes running throughout the collection.
One of these is repetition, with several of the protagonists trapped in a mind-numbing circular existence. However, ‘trapped’ is probably the wrong word here as they are often quite content to do the same thing day in, day out, as typified by the ‘hero’ of ‘Monotonous Lunch’:
The same thing for lunch every day. Every day he ate the same thing, the Set A menu from the cafeteria in the School of Liberal Arts. And the Set A menu was always the same. It included rice, soup, kimchi and three side dishes. The three side dishes did consist of something different each day, but the overall menu was so similar from one day to the next that by the time he was on his way home, he could barely remember what side dishes he’d eaten.
p.49, ‘Monotonous Lunch’ (Dalkey Archive Press, 2016)
Don’t feel too sorry for our hapless friend – changing his routine (or his diet) makes him nervous, and even when a major disruption occurs in his life, the only way he knows how to react is to crawl off to his small office to await the dawning of a new (dull) day.
Another story based on repetition is ‘Canning Factory’, in which the Plant Manager’s disappearance gradually turns into a realisation that life goes on. The worker who was the last to see him gradually usurps his position, almost without wanting to, ending up in his boss’s old company dormitory, along with some sealed cans (I wonder what’s inside…). Here, we see a life of work for the sake of it, with the cans gradually spreading into the workers’ lives to the extent that they prefer eating the stodge inside to better quality food.
Work is a constant thread running through Pyun’s stories, and in many of them there’s a heavy focus on doing what you’re told without asking questions. This results in some bizarre situations where K-Lit meets Kafka, and the opening piece, ‘Rabbit Tomb’, is Exhibit A, with a worker sent on a short-term stay to another town to gather information discovering that life in the office can be rather anonymous:
The office was like an enormous beehive composed of endless divisions subdivided by cubicles. It was arranged by region and city, and each cubicle was marked with a section indicator and a seat number so that it could be easily located.
p.11, ‘Rabbit Tomb’
In this lonely, corporate atmosphere, there are no conversations, apart from when the worker hands in his useless pieces of paper every day. Unable to contact his predecessor (whom he knows is still in the town), he spends most of his time caring for a rabbit he found in the local park, but towards the end of his stay, he senses that this may not have been the first time that these events have occurred. His actions, unexpectedly, may not have been as free as he thought.
There are several more stories in the collection based on work life and the obligations it entails. In ‘Jungle Gym’, an accountant is told to take a ‘business trip’ (mainly to get him away from snooping investigators back at the office). Our hapless friend obligingly goes and… that’s about it. ‘Would You Like to Take a Tour Bus?’ pushes the idea to the next level, as two low-level workers, K. & S., are asked by their boss to deliver a sealed sack to a remote location. As they change from trains to buses, always waiting for a call telling them where to go next (the boss himself is receiving orders from his own superiors), the pair begin to wonder what’s actually in the sack – and whether the smell that’s following them is coming from the contents…
While most of the stories are enjoyable, I wouldn’t say they’re all successful. ‘Room with a Beige Sofa’ sees a couple’s drive to their new home interrupted by car trouble, but the initial tense tone soon fizzles out into a weak, ambiguous ending. Similarly, the title story, ‘Evening Proposal’, has a flower shop owner obliged by past ties make a journey to see a dying man. The reader is left to fill in the gaps between his conversations with an old colleague and the man’s own girlfriend, and the story never quite seems to work.
Pyun is at her best when it all turns creepy, and one of my favourite stories, ‘Out for a Walk’, dials that up to eleven. This one is centred on the experiences of a businessman transferred to a country town and caught between the presence of a friendly dog and the sensitivities of his pregnant wife (it makes sense, trust me). Needing to resolve the issue, he goes for a long walk, only to discover that nature is very different to how it looks in movies:
His foot was caught, and again he fell, scraping his already sore knees. He stepped on a patch of slippery grass, slid, and fell again. His sides throbbed with pain, and still the mayflies continued their attack. He didn’t realize until he was out of breath that he couldn’t escape from them no matter how fast he ran because they weren’t merely chasing him. They were swarming all over him. They were nesting in him.
p.110, ‘Out for a Walk’
Would you believe me if I said that it only gets worse from here?
One of the features of the latest batch of the Library of Korean Literature offerings is extended commentaries by literary critics, but (not for the first time) I found this one a little convoluted. Kim Hyeong-jung’s take on Pyun’s stories revels in the decay and ooze found in her work rather more than any respectable person should; the main problem here, though, is that the commentary actually focuses more on the writer’s earlier books. It gives an insight into what else Pyun has been up to, but it’s not of much use in looking at this collection.
However, even if there are a few weak points, there’s a lot to like about Evening Proposal. It’s marked by a straight-forward tone telling unusual stories about people sleep-walking through their lives, even when confronted by bizarre events, and when Pyun gets it right, the stories certainly leave an impression. There’s more of her work coming in English, with Sora Kim-Russell’s translation of the novel The Hole out in August in the US from Arcade Publishing. On the basis of this one, I think it might be work keeping an eye out for 🙂