‘The Underground Village’ by Kang Kyeong-ae (Review)

2018 saw the emergence of Honford Star, a new UK-based press specialising in translations of twentieth-century classics from East Asia.  While one of their first four offerings hailed from Taiwan, the others were all from Korea, but today’s choice, the last of the four, stands out for another reason.  This is the first of their books by a female writer, and it gives a fresh perspective on the old story of oppression during the colonial era.

*****
Kang Kyeong-ae’s The Underground Village (translated by Anton Hur, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a collection of stories from a well-regarded author writing in the 1930s.  While born in Korea, she spent much of her life in Manchuria, and Sang-kyung Lee’s introduction explains the impact this had on her life and writing.  This part of the Japanese Empire was a frontier region (as described in another Honford Star title, Lee Hyoseok’s Endless Blue Sky), with Japanese soldiers, Communists and Chinese rebels making life difficult for the unlucky poor folk.  As Lee explains:

Kang’s works are instead infused with the desolation in people’s lives caused by the creation of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, the ruthless reality of being ruled by soldiers, and the strenuous efforts required to protect one’s individual and social life against such forces.
p.xiii (Honford Star, 2018)

In such an environment, there was certainly plenty for a socially aware author to examine.

From the very first stories, Kang’s writing shows a clear socialist slant.  ‘Manuscript Money’ has a writer encouraging a student to devote himself to helping others, but she acknowledges that in reality it’s not always that easy.  For example, in ‘Sympathy’, a woman lends a friendly ear to a prostitute with problems, yet when it comes to actual concrete aid, she is found wanting because of her petty selfishness.

A common topic of the writing is the unfairness of life, with many of the stories featuring hard-working peasants betrayed by well-off people wanting to get even richer.  ‘The Firing’ sees a poor worker who has helped the same family for decades shown the door, for economic reasons.  He now realises what his hard work and loyalty were worth:

His old master and he had sat many times on those rocks, talking of this and that, building trust and affection.  How many times had they sat there eating lunch, how many times had they smoked as his master encouraged him in his work?
But looking back on it now, his old master had been lying to him the whole time.  How many of his promises had he really kept?

‘The Firing’, p.197

A similar story is told from another angle in ‘Vegetable Patch’, when the owner’s daughter hears of plans to lay off the workers and must decide whether or not to alert them to the threat.  Of course, going against her parents’ wishes is a major undertaking, and might backfire on her badly.

Unsurprisingly for a female writer, for the most part Kang’s focus is squarely on women.  In a society where they do much of the work, and bear most of the suffering, the writer expertly portrays their dilemmas, and the frequent betrayal by the men in their lives.  The nurse featured in ‘Darkness’ is in mental turmoil after her brother’s’ disappearance and the rejection of her boss (and former lover), but several pieces show even more serious abuse.  ‘Opium’ is one of several stories to employ a frame narrative.  We start with a man being arrested for murder and are then taken back to see him taking his wife on a night-time walk over the mountains.  As it turns out, he’s guilty, but not in the way we think.

This abuse doesn’t always take the form of violence, though.  The female protagonist of ‘Mother and Son’ is scorned by her family members, and after a row with her stepmother is forced to seek a roof over her head elsewhere.  As the snow begins to fall, and her relatives turn their backs, she is forced to wander the streets, raging against the unfairness of the world.  In this wintry tale, we suspect that the woman and her ailing child are unlikely to find room at a convenient inn…

Many of the stories run to between ten and fifteen pages, but the collection is bookended by two longer tales, which consider the same ideas in more detail.  ‘Salt’ follows an unfortunate woman over a number of years.  We see how her life falls apart after her husband’s death, with her family slipping away from her.  She’s initially angry at the Communists who seduced her son into a life of protest, but when she’s forced to take risks in an attempt to make a living, she gradually sees who the real villains of the piece are.

The collection ends with the title story, another longer piece, in which a crippled, simple young man begs for food to help his poor family.  This one stands out for its graphic scenes of poverty, including diseased children left to fend for themselves.  After seeing another woman lose her new-born child, the man’s mother exclaims:

“And wouldn’t you know?  Big Girl’s mother wants to go out into the fields tomorrow.  She should rest for a day, but there is so much work to be done.  She can’t afford to rest.  Why should the poor have babies at all?  Why?”
‘The Underground Village’, p.231

It makes for a chilling coda to the collection – while some of the stories have their bright sides, there’s no sugar-coating this story.

There’s a lot to like about The Underground Village, and I’ve only touched on about half of the included stories here.  Hur, in one of his first full-length translations, has done sterling work; some translated classics can be a little stilted and overly academic, but this one is thoroughly readable and suitable for a more mainstream audience.  Not everyone will immediately be drawn to the idea of 1930s Korean literature, of course, but if you’re someone the idea does interest, then this is highly recommended.  Unfortunately, there’s no news yet as to Honford Star’s future plans.  However, given the four they put out this year, I’ll certainly be looking forward to more Asian classics in 2019 🙂

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