My first review this week examined issues faced by women in South Korea, and today’s books continue in the same vein, albeit in briefer form. We’re taking another look at some fiction I was sent from the wonderful Yeoyu series, a collaboration between Strangers Press and LTI Korea (see my previous post for my views on the first two stories), with my latest choices complementing each other nicely. You see, we may have moved on thirty years from the events of Blood Sisters, but judging by what happens in these two stories, even today, a woman’s life is rarely easy in Korea.
Cheon Heerahn’s ‘Five Preludes & A Fugue’ (translated by Emily Yae Won) consists of a number of letters exchanged by Hyoju, a woman living in Korea, and ‘Sonsengnim’, an older woman living in Basel who is an important figure in Hyoju’s life. Ever since her mother’s death fifteen years earlier, Hyoju has been assisted by her mentor (sonsengnim, also written seonsaengnim, means ‘teacher’ or ‘repected elder’ in Korean) and her family, but she has now decided that she needs to learn more about what actually happened on the fateful day, hence the letters.
The explanation she has requested comes in the older woman’s first letter, and she doesn’t hold back, describing in detail Hyoju’s mother’s watery demise:
That’s when I heard it: a faint, dull thud over the piano music. Instinctively, I held my breath and pricked up my ears. For some reason, my body refused to move. The thudding resumed and I removed my earphones and turned toward the river.
She was hacking at the ice. Having made it all the way to the river’s edge she was now wielding a big rock in one hand. As she struck the river ice, which had looked so impenetrable and solid, it began to crack.
p,10 (Strangers Press, 2019)
Hyoju is grateful to learn about her mother’s final moments, and Sonsengnim appears glad to have got the story off her chest. However, as we’ll see, the ‘truth’ about the incident might not be what it seems…
‘Five Preludes & A Fugue’ is an excellent story, using the epistolary format to introduce the relationship between the two women and slowly fill in some of the gaps in events. The letters act as a form of catharsis, allowing both to confess what they’ve been keeping inside for years, and while the story initially focuses on the relationship between the two women, it gradually expands in focus, with Sonsengnim explaining how she came out about her sexuality to her family. We eventually learn that her home society’s attitudes towards same-sex relationships have had a larger influence on events than Hyoju could have suspected.
Cheon’s piece is skilfully constructed and beautifully written, and Won has done excellent work with the English version, bringing across the two voices and their conflicting stories. We see the key events through different eyes, details differing and as a result changing how we see things, and on rereading the story, there were subtle hints of what was to happen later on. Hyoju, about to get married, feels it’s time to thank her benefactor for all she’s done – and yet the older woman’s words seem tinged with guilt and regret. I wonder why…
While Cheon’s tale merely touches on Korean social issues, they’re front and centre in the second story, Kim Soom’s ‘Divorce’ (again translated by Won). This one is told by a woman, Minjong, sitting in a room with her husband, Cholsik, waiting to enter Room 204, where a sign on the door reads ‘Confirmation of Intent for Divorce by Mutual Consent’. To while away the time, she thinks back to the events that have led her here, remembering her husband’s neglect during hard times in her life – whether it was during her miscarriage or her treatment for a serious illness, Cholsik was simply never there.
However, hers is merely one of many stories of unhappy marriage in Kim’s tale. Quite apart from the snatches of conversation we overhear outside Room 204, Minjong thinks back to the experiences of the people in her life. There’s the wife of a famous documentary photographer, who stands by her husband through thick and thin, to the extent of taking his young mistress to get an abortion, as well as an old friend whose life was destroyed by the merest rumour of an affair (the man, of course, was relatively unaffected). However, the most shocking story involves Minjong’s own mother, a woman treated brutally yet unable to take steps to end her suffering.
‘Divorce’ is basically a series of horror stories tied together by the frame of Minjong sitting outside Room 204 waiting for her name to be called so that she can put an end to her marriage, and it rarely makes for pleasant reading. The theme underpinning the story is clear – no matter how badly men treat their wives, a marriage is for life, and in society’s eyes anything is better than ending it. Minjong’s friend’s story is a telling reminder, with the succesful academic eventually forced to work as a waitress because of the stigma of divorce. Meanwhile, Minjong’s father, who has subjected his wife to decades of beatings, makes his feelings perfectly clear when his daughter attempts to help her mother leave:
“Know this,” he hissed in her ear, “the day we divorce will be the day of your cow of a mother’s funeral.”
He glared at them before storming off to the master bedroom. She walked over to her mother, who trembled, one hand still gripped around the handle of the kitchen knife.
“You haven’t done anything wrong, Mum…”
“It’s all because of me…” (p.22)
And it’s this submissive attitude that Kim finds most upsetting, with women blaming themselves for their husbands’ abuse…
There’s no real secret to ‘Divorce’, and we’re sure that Minjong will sign her piece of paper and get on with her life. However, even here, there’s the sense that she is still a part of her society and affected by her upbringing. Despite her husband’s clear failings, she feels guilt for the breakdown of her marriage, an emotion manifesting itself in her inability to write (her husband, by contrast, continues to carry on with his work regardless). Sadly, whether Korean women soldier on under unbearable conditions or slowly convince their husbands to let them go, the end result appears to be the same. There’s no real chance of a happy ending when you defy society’s demands.