Having read a fair bit of Korean literature over the past few years, I’ve noticed a couple of features of the more recent works that have made it into English. For one thing, a lot of them have been by women, far more than you’d expect from the general gender ‘quota’ in translation (around 30%). Another common feature is a tendency for dark works, with the Korean fiction we get to experience often slightly, well, grim.
Today’s choice is a work of another author being introduced to the Anglosphere, and, well, I think you can see where I’m going with this. Yes, it’s another new book by a female Korean writer, a set of stories, with a rather bleak feel, and many a twist besides. Please come this way, if you dare…
The small publisher Honford Star, responsible for such books as Astral Season, Beastly Season, To the Warm Horizon and Tower, are about to release another of their Korean offerings in the form of Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny (translated by Anton Hur, review copy courtesy of the publisher). This one’s another beautiful physical product, with a bright, vivid cover and stunning design, and what’s inside is excellent, too – ten longish stories, each intriguing in its own way.
If asked to describe Chung’s style, and the mood of her stories, I’d probably struggle, though. Cursed Bunny dances around from genre to genre, with the stories linked only by their quality and the need for a slight suspension of disbelief. For example, the book contains bizarre pieces like ‘The Head’, a slightly distasteful story in which a woman is tormented by a creature that keeps appearing in her toilet bowl, and ‘The Embodiment’, where a woman somehow gets pregnant just from taking the pill for too long. Rather than provide sympathetic advice, the doctor here has just one thing in mind for the young woman:
“You seem to be complacent because you can’t actually see the baby right now, but keep this up and you’ll really see what you’re doing to the baby. If you want a normal child, you’ll do whatever it takes to find a father.”
‘The Embodiment’, p.32 (Honford Star, 2021)
You get the sense that these are allegorical tales of ‘Hell Joseon’, taking an exaggerated look at parent-child relationships and the pressure on women to find a man in contemporary Korean society.
By contrast, ‘Goodbye, My Love’ has more of a science-fiction slant, focusing on a woman and the androids she designs. This one revolves around the difficult decision the woman takes to finally get rid of her very first creation. As she prepares to send it back to the factory, she recalls their time together, but does the android feel the same way about her?
Another group of stories take a darker, at times supernatural approach. ‘The Frozen Finger’ is the claustrophobic story of a woman trapped in a sinking car in complete darkness, with a cold hand her only support in a desolate landscape, while ‘Reunion’, a clever ghost story set in Poland, takes the reader in several directions, most of them rather unexpected. A more conventional twist on the eerie comes in ‘Home Sweet Home’, a very dark piece in which a couple who buy an old apartment building get more than they bargained for (as does anyone who messes with them…).
Another strange piece is the title story, ‘Cursed Bunny’. It’s a kind of fairy tale told by a fetish maker, a cautionary story of a company that doesn’t play by the rules, and the consequences that ensue:
But such things are indeed allowed, and such people who allow it are everywhere. Which is exactly why my grandfather, my father, and I could make a living out of cursed fetishes.
‘Cursed Bunny’, p.57
The wrongdoers’ downfall comes from a lamp in the shape of a rabbit, a ‘gift’ that wreaks destruction upon the owners’ company, and his family. As the grandfather’s story unfolds, we see just how the curse works, and also the effect it has on those who set it.
Cursed Bunny is a collection both grim and Grimm, and interestingly enough, there are several stories here that are more like traditional fairy tales than simple stories. ‘Snare’ is a twisted version of a man finding a golden goose, but far more disgusting (and bloodier), whereas ‘Ruler of the Winds and Sands’ is a fantasy fable that could easily be one of Scheherazade’s tales. In this one, a princess embarks on a mission to restore the sight of the prince she is to marry, only to discover that things are not as they seem, and that human nature is a terrible thing.
The longest, and perhaps most impressive, of these dark fairy tales is the novella-length piece ‘Scars’. We begin with a boy in a cave, preyed upon by an unseen creature:
Flashing sunlight or suffocating darkness, the blinding sky or the damp and moldy air of the cave, water as cold as ice or sticky humidity and feces – there was nothing in between for the boy and no foretelling of what would happen when.
It came to the boy once a month, pierced his bones, and sucked at his marrow.
From this sickening start, the story moves on to the boy’s escape and experiences in the outside world. Wherever he goes, he’s treated like a monster himself, and with the reader only privy to the boy’s conscious memory, there’s a lot that goes unrevealed until later in the story.
Overall, Chung’s collection is an impressive English-language debut, with Hur doing a great job with his smooth version of these twisted fairytales. Be warned, though – as impressive as it is, it’s certainly not a book for the faint of heart (or the squeamish of stomach). I’m not usually that affected by fiction, but there were a few times while reading this when I felt a little uneasy. In short, then, an intriguing collection and another new writer to look out for – if, of course, you have the stomach for it 😉