‘Flowers of Mold’ by Ha Seong-nan (Review)

Flowers of MoldLast week’s Korean literature post focused on a book by a well-known twentieth-century writer, and today we’re looking at a book that was written a few years after.  Ha Seong-nan is the latest female writer from Korea to have work translated into English, and even if it’s a little belated (she’s had five short-story collections and three novels published in her home country), the book is a welcome addition to the collection of Korean literature available in the Anglosphere.  Let’s take a look, then, at a series of short stories, which, as you’ll see, have a certain something about them.  All seems well on the surface, but it rarely takes the reader long to realise that something’s not quite right…

Flowers of Mold (translated by Janet Hong, electronic review copy courtesy of Open Letter Books) first appeared in Korea twenty years ago, and there’s a definite air of a pre-smartphone era in the stories, even if they take place in a society comparable to that shown in the glossy dramas.  The collection consists of ten pieces, most running to around twenty pages, and when the length is combined with the writer’s steady pace (Ha isn’t one to be rushed through a story), it makes for an enjoyable, soothing reading experience.  Which is actually a strange thing to say since in terms of content, some of what we’re treated to here is anything but comforting.

Perhaps the best example of this is the title story, ‘Flowers of Mold’, which immediately plunges the reader into the life of a man who delves into his neighbours’ rubbish each night, sifting through the putrifying filth in search of traces of their lives.  Eventually, his obsession becomes more specific, and he starts to focus on his next-door neighbour, a woman whom he can never quite catch a glimpse of.  Meanwhile, in his apartment, this unusual hobby is starting to take its toll:

When he comes out of the bathroom, he discovers a maggot squirming on the floor.  Summer is coming, but it’s still too early for maggots.  He had mopped every corner of his apartment with bleach several times.  Writhing gently, the maggot moves toward something.  He picks it up with a tissue and flushes it down the toilet.
‘Flowers of Mold’, p.141 (Open Letter, 2019)

There’s another side to the story, though, with the woman’s ex-boyfriend also trying to track her down, and long before the end, most readers will be wondering if there’s something the author’s keeping from us.

The title story is far from the only one where it’s difficult to take everything at face value.  In ‘The Woman Next Door’, a housewife makes friends with a new neighbour, a younger woman, only for her life to slowly disintegrate.  However, it’s not entirely clear whether her new friend is to blame or whether it’s all in the woman’s head.  Meanwhile, ‘Nightmare’ takes this idea and amps up the confusion, with a young woman patiently plotting revenge on a man she believes raped her during the night.  Did it really happen?  And if so, has she actually got the right man?

Several of the stories are deliberately fragmented and confused, with Ha selectively revealing information.  For example, ‘Flag’ has a repairman investigating a power cut, only to find clothes abandoned half-way up a power pole, and the diary he finds with them doesn’t entirely clear up the mystery.  ‘Onion’, on the other hand, starts at the scene of a horrendous car crash, where the discovery of a sharp knife in the car leads the police to bring in a verdict of suicide.  The story of how we got there is then told in a splintered fashion, with the writer jumping around in time, and the truth, when we eventually get there, actually turns out to be far more interesting and complex than the original premise.

Not all the stories have this kind of big ending, and the slow-burning style doesn’t always pay off.  ‘Toothpaste’, one of several pieces where a giant billboard appears as a recurring motif, brings together a worker at an advertising agency, a model and a series of letters, but never really goes anywhere.  The same is true for ‘Early Beans’, which describes an eventful day in the life of a young man.  Even if Ha cleverly puts together an unlikely chain of events, the reader may well be left feeling a little flat by the end.

However, for the most part, Ha does manage to sustain interest, in part thanks to the writing.  Hong, the translator of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairytale, carries us along with her measured prose, and the opening piece, ‘Waxen Wings’, provides an excellent example.  Here we have a woman looking back at her life, delivering an unhurried story of her younger days and her dreams of soaring into the air:

Now, you no longer struggle to keep your body straight when doing a handstand on the bar.  After a full turn on the high bar, you can pull off two and a half flips before you land.  You recall how you used to go on the swing as a ten-year-old.  Once again, the desire to fly takes hold and the familiar battle against gravity begins.
‘Waxen Wings’, p.10

The title turns out to be apt.  While we can empathise with the girl’s desire to fly, everyone knows the dangers of getting too close to the sun, and there’s little chance of a happy ending here.

Another steady extended piece is ‘Your Rearview Mirror’, a story that seems as if it wants to grow up to become a novel.  It begins with a store detective who develops an interest in a frequent visitor, a woman in a figure-hugging dress, and when he inevitably gets to talk to her, the two gradually get closer.  This was one of my favourite stories in the collection, a gentle piece with a little magic and a slightly unepected twist in the tale for good measure.

Flowers of Mold is generally marked by a subdued tone, yet there is one story where Ha really lets her hair down.  ‘The Retreat’ begins with the tenants of a run-down building meeting to protest against its impending sale, but after an argument with their representative, the building’s owner has bigger worries:

Still in his chair, Kwak looked at the broken glass, the scattered trophies and the director whose mouth was foaming.  Why won’t the old man get up?  At last, the truth finally registered.  He tried to shake the director awake, but it was useless.  He picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1, and then hung up right away.  He locked his front door.
‘The Retreat’, p.55

The first death, of course, is always the hardest, and as the tenants start to revolt (and wonder where the director of the cram school has disappeared to), Mr. Kwak wonders whether the upcoming annual retreat with all of his tenants might be a good time to deal with his problems.

Overall, Flowers of Mold is an intriguing collection of stories, one well worth making time for (literally – there are no five-minute reads here).  It’s an enjoyable look at normal people in situations a little less ordinary, and even if there were a couple I wasn’t taken by, there’s enough here to make me want to take another look at Ha’s work.  Of course, that depends on whether anything else is in the pipeline – let’s hope it doesn’t take another twenty years for more of her fiction to make it into English…

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