The Book Group zooming with Hwang Sok-yong At Dusk

Hwang Sok-yong, At Dusk (translated by Sora Kim-Russell, Scribe 2018)

Before the meeting: One of the many things I love about my Book Group is that a couple of chaps can be counted on, when it’s their turn to choose our book, to send us Somewhere Else. We’ve read challenging books from Indonesia, India, Japan, Poland, Russia .. the list could go on. This month, we’re in South Korea.

Like many novels these days, this one tells two separate stories in alternating chapters, and the links between the stories become apparent only towards the end. The reader is quietly tantalised by hints at the connection, and there are red herrings.

The protagonist of the first narrative strand, Park Minwoo, is a successful male architect nearing retirement age, who has been part of ruthless slum clearance projects and aesthetically hideous urban development. My reading was partly informed and enriched by knowing that I was in the virtual company of architects, a builder and a heritage consultant in the Group, but the ethical issues didn’t need that kind of help. Minwoo has our sympathy: the bulk of his story is taken up with his childhood in the slums, and his escape to a more affluent life through study and patronage; and with the way his childhood friends and, especially, sweetheart remained behind, mostly forgotten by him – until, in the opening paragraph of the book, a young woman hands him a slip of paper with a name and a phone number and the past comes back.

The other story, told in the first person, features Jung Woohee, a young woman who is scraping a living working the graveyard shift in a convenience store in order to pursue her ambition to become a playwright. She is befriended by a man slightly older than her, named Kim Minwoo. I was struggling with the Korean personal names and place names, and at about the time that we learned his name I went back to the start to draw up a list of characters and places: yes, there are two Minwoos, but the mother of Kim Winmoo laughs at the idea of any connection between the son of a poor single mother and a famous architect.

I know next to nothing about South Korean history and culture. Duck Duck Go was my friend, especially in Minwoo’s story, which includes passing references to a coup, martial law and a massacre – all background to his rising fortunes. And I recognised motifs from of Bong Joon-ho’s movie Parasite – I don’t think there’s any influence or borrowing in either direction, just that the movie and the book are about the same world: Woohee lives in a basement apartment like that of the poor family in that film; and like the daughter of the poor family, Minwoo earns some cash by tutoring the initially unresponsive son of a wealthy family.

The thematic relationship between the two narratives is powerful, particularly as embodied in the two Minwoos. One has become successful through projects that have destroyed communities but has been able to turn his back on the human suffering; the other has been led by poverty and need to be part of an eviction squad on just that kind of project. It’s an amazing achievement of the novel that we continue to see these characters as human and deserving our compassion, even while we see the horror of their actions. We take no joy from the fact that things don’t end well for either of them.

I think I’m missing something in the way the two narratives connect at the end. Avoiding spoilers, I’ll just say that it felt like a twist that lacked any pay-off at all. Possibly something is being said about generational cultural shift, or the role of the artist (is Woohee a representative of the novelist?), and maybe there’s something about gender, but it sailed past me. I’m looking forward to talking about it to a lot of little faces on my computer screen.

A word about the translation: Sora Kim-Russell manages to give us a very readable text in natural, flowing English, while at the same time not pretending that this is anything but a Korean story. Take this little passage from Minwoo’s childhood visit to the home of his poorer friend Jaemyung:

Their mother ladled up bowls of sujebi that she’d cooked in a large pot, while Myosoon carried the bowls from the kitchen to the table. Once Myosoon and their mother were seated at the end of the table, dinner began. Instead of the usual firm dough torn by hand, their sujebi was made with a runny dough that was scraped with a pair of chopsticks into a pot of boiling water; as you ate it, the dough flakes turned soggy and loose until you were basically eating flour porridge. The flour must have been of poor quality to begin with, as it was yellowish in colour, and the broth wasn’t made from beef or anchovy stock but was just plain water with a little soy sauce and sliced squash. It barely qualified as sujebi.

(page 56-57)

There’s a lot of explanation embedded in that passage that – I’m guessing – wouldn’t be necessary for a Korean reader, but the ignorant reader (such as me) is neither patronised nor mystified. Sujebi isn’t translated for us, nor is it italicised to mark it as ‘foreign’; but we are told what the yellowish hue of the dough signifies about the flour. I just looked Sora Kim-Russell and see that she’s won awards. I concur with the judges.

After the meeting: I felt our last meeting, our first on zoom, was like an EngLit seminar, by which I think I meant less convivial as well as less chaotic than our Book Group meetings usually are. If Wednesday’s meeting was seminarish, it was only to the good, because we had a wonderfully rich, and enriching, conversation about the book. This may have been helped by the unobtrusive labour of one group member who earns his living largely as a facilitator. In the past he has been mocked for his pleas that we have one conversation at a time. This week, no one mocked, and I think we all silently appreciated the way he made sure everyone had a fair bite of the conversational apple. So, apart from the chap who was called away because his daughter cut her hand badly (she’s OK now), it was a smooth and unchaotic event.

My hope that the architects etc would shed extra light on the book was dashed. Pretty much with one voice they said that the architecture was there as a metaphor (or metonym, maybe: the subject was the modernisation of Korea, and architecture was a way of talking about that.

One chap had read the book twice, and a number of us thought that was a smart move. It’s a short book, but there are many layers: the portrait of Korea, the romance, the interplay of the two narrative strands, and so on. Someone had given the book to a friend to read because he wanted to discuss it before we met. The friend described it as unsentimentally elegiac, a phrase that struck a chord in the group: Author Hwang does tell of a lost past, without romanticising it.

There was an interesting discussion of the ending, which I won’t even attempt to summarise here, partly because that would be spoileristic.

And as well as that, the important business of the evening: hearing about how we are all faring in these Covid–19 times. Some are busier than ever with their jobs, some suddenly out of work, some missing contact with their family, some living in uncustomary closeness with theirs, one man needing advice on a barber for a much-needed haircut, and so on. Have I =said I love my book group? Then I’ll say it again. (Also, someone mentioned my blog, so I have to be nice about them in case they turn up to read it!)

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