After a week in Poland, and then a couple of posts from Quebec, it’s time to head off to more familiar territory. Over the next two weeks I’ll be looking at four books from Korea, three of which are brand new releases, so stay tuned if you’re a fan of K-Fiction 🙂 It all kicks off today with the latest book from one of my favourite Korean writers, the story of a successful man looking back at his life as he reaches his twilight years. It’s an interesting allegory of a country whose shiny surface covers a whole host of stories of hardship, and where not everyone has managed to come through unscathed…
Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk (translated by Sora Kim-Russell, review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications) is the story of Park Minwoo, a successful architect living in Seoul. After a talk he gives in the city, a young woman comes up and thrusts a piece of paper at him before disappearing into the crowd. Written on the paper are a phone number and a name, Cha Soona, and this is all it takes for the sophisticated urbanite to be swept back to his humble beginnings.
The reader is also taken several decades into the past, as Park reminisces about his childhood. One of the many families eking out a living on the outskirts of the city, living in a cramped shack with no running water, the boy and his parents do their best to get by with the help of their fish-cake stall. The young Minwoo shows an aptitude for study, and it’s this that links him to Soona, the only other student in the area. Looking back, he can’t help but wonder what happened to her, and his decision to get in touch leads him to reflect on his life, and on what he’s gained and lost.
Hwang is a wonderful writer, and this third book in collaboration with Scribe and Kim-Russell (after Princess Bari and Familiar Things) is another well-crafted, entertaining read. What makes it a slightly different reading experience, though, is that At Dusk eschews some of the more fantastic elements of Hwang’s other work. There’s no talking dog or ominous dreams, no floating blue lights indicating the dokkaebi of the Seoul rubbish tips. Instead, what we get is a measured, sober tale of people doing their best to get by in an unforgiving modern society.
The novel is actually told in alternating strands, with one half focusing on a woman called Jung Woohee. She’s a twenty-nine-year-old theatre director who, despite her education and experience, is forced to burn the candle at both ends, working night shifts at a convenience store just to be able to afford a mouldy basement room:
As I lie in bed,looking up at that stain spreading across the wall, I suddenly feel breathless, like I am suffocating, and fight the urge to scream hysterically, But at least now the air is dry, so it will be liveable for the next few months. I look around at my room anew. One mattress, a sink, a gas stovetop, a microwave, a small refrigerator, a washing machine inside the dark utility closet, a cheap desk and chair, a wardrobe, and two fluorescent lights, one in the middle of the room and one over the sink. That’s everything.
p.110 (Scribe Publications, 2018)
Her lifestyle is described as fairly typical of a young person in modern Seoul, and the reader is tempted to wonder just how much progress has been made since the times when families lived in slum shantytowns on the urban fringe.
The other half of the story looks at the ageing architect and his many trips down memory lane. With his old friends starting to die off, it’s only natural that he’s given to nostalgia for the good old days, and Hwang paints a picture of a man finally forced to weigh up the cost of his life and consider what was lost in his quest for success. On reflection, he is forced to admit that his life has been marked by selfishness, even from a young age:
It’s not that I was already cynical at that age or anything. I sympathised with those who were fighting social injustices, but at the same time, by having the fortitude to just buckle down and get through it, I was able to forgive myself for not getting involved. Over time, this turned into a kind of habitual resignation, and it became second nature for me to regard everything around me with an air of cool indifference. I thought this meant I was mature. (pp.107/8)
In truth, of course, Minwoo was just keeping his head down, happy to have the opportunity to be one of the lucky few who escaped from the slums. Now, though, as dusk falls in his life, the regrets are starting to build…
Of course, Hwang himself is a very different person, with a history of speaking up against the system (and the scars to show for it). At Dusk is another of his works inviting the reader to think about things they’d rather ignore, from a modern society that’s super busy and chronically short on sleep to the Korea of decades ago, where the lives of individuals were sacrificed in the race to improve society as a whole. As an architect, Minwoo was on the frontline of this wave of progress, yet the comments of one of his friends makes him examine his conscience:
When conditions began to improve, traditional architecture was reinterpreted, and the traditional colours of wooden architecture were applied to concrete instead. This was the work of the generation before us, whereas our generation poured its energy into redevelopment of slums and the creation of concrete mountains covered in boxlike apartments. But we paid a heavy price for it. We drove our neighbours into a space of distorted desire. Architecture is not the destruction of memory, it is the delicate restructuring of people’s lives on top of a sketch of those memories. We have already failed horribly at achieving that dream. (p.92)
The slums Minwoo remembers from his childhood may well have been awful, with a fair amount of senseless violence and awful living conditions. However, there was still a sense of community and belonging (I’ve just finished watching the excellent Korean drama series Reply 1988, and while the homes there weren’t quite as poor, the tightly-knit community reminded me of the one depicted here).
When we look at modern life through Woohee’s eyes, though, it’s a very different story. With no time for anything but work and sleep, she lives a rather lonely life, and if it weren’t for the help of her friend (another Minwoo), she would probably have gone under long ago. Even if the country as a whole has advanced immeasurably, it’s questionable whether her living standard is any better than that of the slum dwellers of the 1970s.
At Dusk provides the reader with an excellent picture of Seoul now and several decades ago, with a mournful, nostalgic feel pervading the novel. Without the usual magical elements, it can feel a little straight and serious at times, and for much of the novel you may be wondering exactly what the connection is between the two strands. However, Hwang is a masterful storyteller, and the final third of the book skilfully brings the disparate stories together, with a clever, and surprising, twist to round matters off.
As mentioned above, this is Kim-Russell’s third translation of Hwang’s work, and there’s certainly a sense of a familiarity and comfort with the writer’s voice. In particular, there’s a definite similarity in terms of content with Familiar Things, and together they make for an excellent look at the price we pay for a convenient modern life. These offerings from Scribe have all been wonderful, but there’s still more in Korean that could be translated. Here’s hoping that they’ll continue to work with Hwang and Kim-Russell to bring more of his books into English in the future.