‘Old Wrestler’ by Jeon Sungtae & ‘Demons’ by Kang Hwagil (Review)

The four stories covered in my first two posts on the Yeoyu series, a collaboration between Strangers Press and LTI Korea, were brought to us by two translators, with a couple of stories translated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won each.  This time around, we have two new translators, but in some ways the stories I’m looking at today are even more closely connected than the others.  You see, both take place in the countryside, away from the big-city lights – and, more importantly, both are concerned with memory, or what happens when it starts to play tricks on you…

Jeon Sungtae’s ‘Old Wrestler’ (translated by Sora Kim-Russell) follows a retired wrestler on one last trip to the place where he was born.  He’s a hero on the small island, having brought fame (and even a bridge) to his home town over the course of his career, and having been invited to the wedding of a friend’s relative, he’s looking forward to seeing how the place has changed.

Sadly, though, it isn’t only the outside world that has changed.  The old man’s years of fighting have left him altered, too:

He understood the doctor’s warning.  There was no treatment that could reverse the damage done to his brain.  All they could do was slow the inevitable.  On top of the image of his old brain hardening, he saw another of the brain tissue turning black.
p.12 (Strangers Press, 2019)

This means that his homecoming isn’t quite as comforting as he might have liked.  As familiar smells reach him on the breeze, and people wave to him in the streets, he’s forced to search his memory, unsure as to whether they’re really familiar at all.

‘Old Wrestler’ is the sad tale of a man whose glory days have come back to bite him.  Ironically, it’s his signature move that has left him with brain damage, and the shell of a man stumbling around at the wedding is a shock to those with images of the colossus bestriding the ring.  I suspect that many readers will immediately associate the events of the story (as I did) with the sad demise of Muhammad Ali, and Jeon’s poignant tale shows how the fighter would have been well aware of the contrast between how he appeared in his youth and in his later years.

It’s a lovely little tale, with the other main ideas being the way time moves on relentlessly for everyone (it isn’t only the wrestler who’s getting older) and the unreliability of memory, with the protagonist tortured by the thought that the memories he has of his home town may never have happened.  Russell provides her usual excellent work here, but this isn’t the first collaboration for the writer-translator duo.  If you want another taste of their work, the short-story collection Wolves was published a while back, and it’s well worth checking out.

Kang Hwagil’s ‘Demons’ (translated by Mattho Mandersloot) features a very different central character, yet there are many similarities with Jeon’s piece.  This one revolves around a primary school teacher, Kim Miyoung, in a small rural village, whose husband is absent on business in Indonesia.  His wife has been left at the family home with her overbearing mother-in-law and a cheeky daughter, Mina (who has picked up some bad habits from her grandmother and the local children), and she’s more than annoyed when her husband reveals he needs to stay on overseas because of company issues.

Putting up with her mother-in-law and the bullying kids in her small class is bad enough, but when the teacher starts hearing noises, her life becomes even more complicated.  At first she thinks she’s imagining things, but then dark images begin to appear in the shadows:

Carefully, I touched my hand to its cold, firm surface.  A flesh-like metallic odour hit my nostrils, and, tok, something smacked against the gate again, shaking it to and fro.  I gave a shriek and staggered backwards as, swoosh, something stole away.  Though my field of vision was narrowed, I could clearly see something.
p.15 (Strangers Press, 2019)

There’s definitely something going on in the village – so why can’t anyone else see these ‘demons’ running amok?

Kang’s story is a confusing, dark mess of a tale with an ambiguous ending, and it makes for an enthralling little read.  They key to it all is the setting of a tiny village where everyone knows everyone else, and where there are no secrets – except from outsiders like Miyoung.  There’s a feeling that the villagers are determined to close ranks against her, even when she’s doing her best to help a child being bullied in her class.  Her mother-in-law is little help, obsessed with a vendetta against the woman next door, and you sense that the poor teacher is close to breaking point.

It all comes to a head when the village comes together to make meju (bricks of dried, fermented soybeans), a festive affair that turns sour for poor Miyoung.  It’s here that she must truly confront her demons and work out what’s happening in the village.  Is she going crazy?  Are there really supernatural forces at play?  Or, more disturbingly, are the villagers turning against her in an even more sinister fashion?  I can’t promise you any answers, but you’ll definitely enjoy trying to work out what’s going on 🙂

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