Tag Archives: Sora Kim-Russell

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!)

Asia Literary Review 23

Martin Alexander (Editor), Asia Literary Review 23, [Northern] Spring 2012

Issue 18 of Asia Literary Review has a sense of occasion about it. Like some previous issues, this one is devoted to a single nation. But a collection of English language pieces on China or Japan can confidently assume its readers will have heard of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or those poets who are in trouble, even if they haven’t read any of them. This one, on Korea, can expect to be giving many readers their first real look at a national literature. All the more so as both North and South Korea are represented. The sense of occasion is marked by an appearance by the journal’s publisher, Ilyas Khan, who contributes a note on his personal connection with Korea and his appreciation of the Korean people.

If the state of the short story is any indication of the vigour of a literary culture (a big if, I know, but think of Australia in the 1890s), then South Korean writing is thriving. All four short stories here are grippingly weird: in Kim Young-ha’s ‘Ice Cream’ (translated by Dana Zur) a suburban couple phone to complain when a packet of their favourite ice cream tastes of petrol, with unsettling results; Park Mingyu’s ‘Is That So? I’m a Giraffe’ (translated by Sora Kim-Russell) takes the situation where commuters are pushed into the underground trains of Seoul and turns the surrealism up to full volume; in Jeon Sung Tae’s ‘The Korean Soldier’ (translated by Jae Won Chung) the hero, who seems to be the author’s alter ego, has a thoroughly civilian and richly comic adventure in Mongolia; ‘Black-and-White Photographer’ by Han Yujoo (translated by Janet Hong) is a chilling tale on what Martin Alexander’s editorial tells us is a recurring theme, the lost child. The lost child turns up again in the other piece of fiction from South Korea, an extract from What You Never Know by Jeong I-hyeon (translated by Chi-Young Kim), which I’m guessing is a gripping novel – at least I was left frustrated when the extract stopped and nothing was resolved.

Of the South Korean non-fiction, the stand-outs for me are the excerpts from Liu Jiaju’s memoir, ‘My Experiences in the Korean War’ (translated by Martin Merz), and Michael Breen’s ‘Image and Identity’ (crosscultural reflections of an Englishman who has been living in Korea for thirty years).

Two North Koreans speak directly in these pages. The first, Jang Gil-su, does so in a pencil drawing he did when hiding in his mid-teens on the way to successfully escaping to the South. The drawing shows a man being executed by a uniformed figure with a rifle. The caption informs us that everyone is expected to attend executions in North Korea, ‘including children’. The other, the poet–defector Jang Jin-sung, is represented by five poems (translated by Shirley Lee) as stark as the drawing that precedes them. I don’t generally ‘get’ poetry in translation, but these speak to me very strongly. According to the editorial, Jang Jin-sung will be representing Korea at the Cultural Olympiads, which must be happening round about now.

Of the pieces about North Korea, I felt most enlightened by ‘Pyongyang: City of Privilege and Pretence’ in which journalist Sue Lloyd-Roberts ranges far and wide trying to make sense of the outpouring of grief at Kim Jong Il’s death, and Daniel Levitsky’s ‘North Korea’s Revolutionary Cinema’, which lays out a part of the jigsaw explaining how people can accept the regime. Possibly the scariest piece in the whole issue is the photo essay ‘Holiday Tours to the DPRK’ by Simon Cockerell, an Englishman who has been taking tourists into North Korea every month for the last ten years. His text is as carefully noncommittal as the faces in his photos, and any irony in his final sentence is totally deniable: ‘A week at a beach resort may be temporarily refreshing but the same amount of time in the DPRK provides an experience that will last for a lifetime.’

I’m writing this on the iPad in Kayaköy, near the Turkish Mediterranean, and creating links to all these articles is more complex than I’m prepared to do while this particular beach resort (about which I’ll write something tomorrow – it’s seven is from the beach, and not exactly a resort). But I’ve listed the translators because everything here read beautifully in English and at the same time retained its sense of having come from elsewhere. Many of the pieces I’ve mentioned are up on the Asia Literary Review site, where there’s an online supplement of material that wouldn’t fit in the magazine, which is well worth a look.

I’ve read most of this issue in Turkey, quite a bit on public transport. One friendly Turkish man picked it up, skimmed the pages, and asked, ‘Where are you from?’, clearly failing to fit me to his mental image of a Korean. The Art Student kindly gave permission to use this photo:

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