Showing posts with label Korean. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Korean. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

WITMonth Day 9 | One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun

Something that has happened more and more frequently to me in recent years is an odd tendency to start a book, be moderately disappointed by the first chapter, set it aside for a few days (or weeks), return to it, and fall in deep. This doesn't happen with every book, of course, but it's happened often enough that I've taken it as a sort of indicator: Sometimes you start a book at the wrong time. Give it a moment, give it a week, give it a few months... you might end up enjoying it a lot more when the time is right.

Hwang Jungeun's One Hundred Shadows (tr. Jung Yewon) felt very much like that sort of book. I read the first chapter during a particularly stressful week and found myself put off somewhat by the quotation-mark-less writing and the odd, almost airy style. I set it aside for a week. When I picked it up again, the prose felt like it had undergone some sort of transformation (though it was obviously I who underwent the change...). The simple style felt fresh and sharp, unburdened by unnecessary weight or false "literariness".

And I liked it.

It's an odd, sort of melancholic sort of book, framed by some rather nice symmetry and a quiet sort of social message. Curiously, based on the jacket description, I was expecting One Hundred Shadows to focus more explicitly on class differences and social inequality in modern Seoul, but... it's not that sort of book at all. Not that there aren't politics - narrator Eungyo and her friend-maybe-more Mujae discuss at some point the definition of the word "slum", and Eungyo often thinks about the state of their status as repairmen of sorts, working in a cheap market that has been marked for demolition. Both characters acknowledge the difficulties they've had, with Mujae referencing his inherited debts and the cost of college ("I didn't think what I was learning [in college] was worth getting into debt for") and Eungyo contemplating her reasons for dropping out of school as a teenager. In that sense, One Hundred Shadows is a solidly "working class" sort of a novel, something that shouldn't be as rare as it is.

In the midst of this political exploration of class comes a fantasy-like twist on it: rising shadows. The short novel begins with Eungyo following her newly-risen shadow out into the woods; Mujae is there to guide her back to reality. Over the course of the novel, several different characters describe stories of their rising shadows or undergo similar events. When his shadow rises, Eungyo notes that "it seemed as though Mujae was no longer present." These events seem to become more and more frequent as the novel progresses, linked perhaps to the anxieties of the neighborhood as the threat (and action) of demolition looms closer. Certainly references to shadow-risings that happen earlier are linked to death and despair...

And yet there's a surprising sweetness to the story. Eungyo and Mujae's friendship develops slowly, with the two supporting each other and balancing each other nicely. Each is there for the other when their shadow rises, and their growing bond seems to reflect that sort of deeper connection. It's a refreshingly honest sort of relationship, never overly explicit or harshly obvious.

This can be said of the novel overall - it's understated. The jacket, as I've already mentioned, calls this a "hard-edged novel", which seems like the last term I'd use for this sloping story (though many other reviewers have adopted it). It's certainly powerful, but the writing is almost explicitly quiet, with the fantasy elements also wrapping the story rather gently. It's more like a softly rolling dreamscape, but one that refuses to forget the world that shapes it. One Hundred Shadows doesn't have to be loud in order to make its political/social point clear to readers. On the contrary - I found that I much preferred this character-focused approach. It makes for a powerful, unique little novel, and one that I can easily recommend.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

WITMonth Day 10 | The Vegetarian - Han Kang | Review

Pretty much everyone in the world of literature in translation has heard of The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) by now. Rightly so. The novel won the Man Booker International Prize and has appeared at the top of quite a few reader's WITMonth recommendation lists. It's a good book, deserving of praise and recognition in circles well beyond just "literature in translation".

I'll start by pointing to the image on the left: this is the cover that I have. My first introduction to The Vegetarian was through a comment focused on the cover (I honestly cannot remember where I saw this, unfortunately), noting that while the flowers initially look pretty and elegant, the image quickly becomes grotesque and rather disturbing. And this was what happened when I got the book and finally read it: The story at first seems like it could progress normally, but it slowly loses bits and pieces and forms a very different puzzle. The more toned-down later covers (like the rather noble-looking US cover below) lose some of that creep factor, but they also find a way to present the book more wholly to a wider audience. The original cover... well, it's really uncomfortable to look at. The book might be uncomfortable in many ways, but it's a more subtle form.

I won't bother to summarize the story, not least because dozens of far more insightful readers have unpacked the plot and the morals and the ideas. Suffice to say that The Vegetarian is very much about the notion of rebellion, about feeling wrong in your skin and losing yourself.

The book is comprised of three sections - novellas, really. They follow Yeong-hye's gradual loss of control - first in her repulsion to meat (a shock to her family in a culture in which vegetarianism is largely non-existent), then her discomfort in her physical form, a gradual aversion to food of all sorts, and finally a physical and mental state that hovers on the ethereal.

The Vegetarian is Yeong-hye's story, yet she is not the narrator or its primary source. Each novella looks at Yeong-hye's descent (ascent?) from a different angle, always slightly distant and shaded by the primary narrator (her husband, brother-in-law, and sister, respectively). We never hear Yeong-hye's thoughts directly, instead getting her description of a disturbing dream from her husband, observations of her bodily discomfort from her brother in law, and an understanding of mental illness from her sister. It's a trick that keeps The Vegetarian almost in check, never getting overly emotional or sentimental. The style reminded me a bit of Yoko Ogawa's Revenge, mostly in that it's all a bit disturbing and weird, but in a really crisp way. It work.

It helps that the book is written in such a way that you can't help but want to devour it. Crisply written and beautifully translated, The Vegetarian hooks you quickly and refuses to let go. Luckily, the book is fairly short, but it's not exactly a quick read. There's a depth to this story that demands attention, care and space.

There's really not much more to say. While the book is somewhat disturbing in the themes it explores (and specifically the way it explores them), it's the sort of unsettling feeling that makes a book last longer in your taste buds. I imagine some readers might find even this level of - shall we call it? - horror unpleasant and not to their taste, but I personally enjoyed it (and I detest horror). The Vegetarian is thought-provoking and beguiling and exactly what everyone promised it would be: a really, really good book.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Wayfarer: New Fiction By Korean Women | Review

Before I begin this review, it's important to note that I don't feel particularly qualified in reviewing a short story collection. Short stories by one author - okay, sure, I can handle it. There's a fluidity to those books (or at least, there should be), there's a structure, there's a single underlying style that runs through the stories. With an anthology, however, there's usually very little - the styles, eras, approaches, plots, and even translators may vary. Anthologies are not necessarily meant to be read in a single sitting.

Wayfarer, however, ends up feeling a lot more like a single-author collection than a big anthology. I read it in a single sitting. It was translated by the same team (Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, at it again). There are similar themes of womanhood running through all the stories. And goodness if the collection doesn't feel whole.

Wayfarer comprises of eight stories that look at women from different angles. Most of the stories deal with women's relations with men, in some form or other, but the stories remain firmly about women. A daughter is forced to reconcile with a Communist father she's never met. A journalist struggles with a story about a man who was imprisoned for twenty years and how it relates to her own rebellious past. Mothers deal with children, wives deal with husbands, women deal with the world and try to face it, sometimes more successfully than others.

These stories are largely melancholic, with our women finding few solutions to their problems. The title story (also the final story in the collection) displays this brutally, in a sequence that left me unsettled for a while after I finished it. Some of the stories are outright uncomfortable, but they seem at home with this discomfort, knowing exactly how the reader will respond.

Not all of the stories are necessarily brilliant on their own, and some of them are downright forgettable. But as a collection, the book works fantastically. Depressing as some of the gender dynamics may be in these stories, they present a fascinating portrait of modern Korean women (from 17 years ago, yes, but still). The stories fit together nicely, without any extreme tone-shifts from writer to writer, but clear enough differences between them to make it apparent that these are many different writers.

While the book is no longer in print, and its publisher (Women in Translation - !) seems to no longer exist, I'd recommend reading the collection if you can get your hands on it. I've still not read enough Korean literature to truly gauge different cultural aspects of the stories, but I feel like I'm gaining a better grasp of it with every book I read.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

WITMonth Day 14 - There a Petal Silently Falls | Review

I read Ch'oe Yun's There a Petal Silently Falls (a collection of three fairly not-short stories, tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) on the basis of a single tweet from Tony (of Tony's Reading List fame) - I saw the tweet, looked up the book, requested it from my library... and three days later I was sitting on the couch and mulling over the book I had just read.

Truthfully, I didn't particularly enjoy There a Petal Silently Falls while reading it, particularly the title story which seriously unnerved me. All three stories are a bit strange, but in surprisingly different ways. "There a Petal Silently Falls" is confusing in its messy, non-linear and ambiguous narrative, "Whisper Yet" felt exceedingly partial to me, as though half the story was missing, and "The Thirteen Scent Flower" (which was easily my favorite of the stories) contained such a strange and frankly fantastic (from fantasy) story and setting that it can't help but be viewed as a little offbeat.

The more I sat and thought about the collection as a whole, the more I began to wonder about what I had missed. Even a quick skim of "There a Petal Silently Falls" revealed a deeper understanding of the story, even if (after reading the afterword) I realized that I was missing fundamental historical context. This missing context suddenly put the story in a whole different category. No longer was it confusing because of poor writing, it was suddenly obvious to me that it was confusing because I lacked the necessary background to fully understand it. This doesn't take away from the fact that I was confused, but it explained how a story so vague could nonetheless get away with employing such a twisted style. Suddenly the baffling point-of-view switches in the story seemed not like a weird post-modern mess, but a fairly brilliant trick.

The same was true of "Whisper Yet". Once I reached the end of the story, I understood that there had been many small clues scattered throughout the shorter story that built up to something fairly meaningful. And yet without the proper context, the story simply felt loose and scattered. This wasn't quite as extreme as "There a Petal Silently Falls" (of course, "Whisper Yet" is significantly shorter...), but there was still just a bit of reader frustration on my part.

It may well be that "The Thirteen Scent Flower" also had some deeper level of context that I didn't pick up on, but honestly I enjoyed the story even without it. Unlike its two predecessors, "The Thirteen Scent Flower" has a bit of an uplifting message, and its characters are oddly endearing. There are certainly darker undertones to the story, but I doggedly refuse to view it as anything other than sweet, because after two grimmer stories, I honestly needed something cheerier. Plus there's a lovely bit of scientist satire there that rings particularly true. Even with its clever social commentary, it manages to be a really enjoyable story.

I didn't get the impression that there's any explicit link between any of these three stories, but I have to admit that they work fairly well as a whole. The stories balance each other's weaknesses - one with stronger messages but weaker characters, another with stronger characters but weaker writing, another with stellar writing but a blurry message... Thematically the three do all touch on modern Korean struggles and society, but in such markedly different ways that I'm hard-pressed to say that the stories are really tied together.

Once I'd thought for a while, I had to concede - yes, there was a lot to appreciate in this collection. It was less forgettable than I thought it was going to be while reading it, and also less "all over the place" (particularly after reading the afterword which - again - provided me with some much-needed context). The writing is interesting, often experimental and different (not always precisely to my liking, but there's no denying that it's very smart, very good writing), and while not all the characters were quite as memorable as others, their stories were. It's not necessarily a book I'd shove into any reader's hands, but it's definitely worth taking a look at. And while her approach isn't necessarily my favorite, Ch'oe's writing is certainly interesting enough to keep me on the lookout for more.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly | Review

This novella right here is one of the reasons I so strongly believe in having a dedicated Women in Translation month. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, right here, this book, serves as such a perfect example for why I've been championing this, and why it means so much to me.

Sidebar: the cover is positively lovely in print
The reason I read literature in translation is the same reason I read sci-fi, the same reason I read fantasy, the same reason I don't like mysteries, the same reason my tastes shift every few years - it's because above all else, I seek diversity in my reading. I don't want to read formulaic novels and I don't want to read about ideas that I'm already familiar with. International literature checks off many of these boxes comfortably, because often a different upbringing and a different culture heavily influences the type of book an author is likely to write. In the same way, gender is likely to influence it as well.

So we come to The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, a short fable about a hen who, yes, dreams she can escape her coop, lay an egg and fly away from the life she's lived until now. When the story opens, our hen Sprout (a name she chose herself, since of course to her human masters she's nothing more than an egg-laying hen and useless as long as she is not fulfilling that task...) is reaching the end of her egg-laying days. She can feel it coming on. And she wants, desperately, more than anything, to be a mother to a chick.

The story that continues from there is sweet. It's powerful. It's meaningful. Anyone who reads The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly will recognize the strength of the maternal theme that runs through the core of the novella. Sun-mi Hwang (ably translated by Kim Chi-Young) doesn't simply look at the ordinary desire for motherhood (and yes, I recognized while reading the book that there might be a perception of an assumption that motherhood is the default for females, though I really don't think that's the point...), but at the actual practical implications. Motherhood appears in different forms - desperate, voluntary, loving, frightening, overbearing, understanding - it's almost overwhelming. If we're ever going to discuss whether men and women write differently (which I really, really don't believe), I think this would actually serve as a good example for different styles: men writing about motherhood so warmly is fairly rare...

But The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is not just about motherhood, and it's not just cheerful, plucky hens flapping around trying to get their way. The messages here about family in general, culture, belonging, and even farming as a concept stand fairly central in the story. It's a fascinating little book, one that made me think about all sorts of issues for several days after I finished it. Unique, different, pleasant, thoughtful and intelligent... what more could you ask for?

I really recommend The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly. I've seen certain reviews call it a "lighter" fable as compared to something like George Orwell's Animal Farm; to be perfectly honest, I think that assessment has a bit of the "male=serious, female=fluff" mentality to it. This is a novella that packs major punch in its "domesticity" (quite literally, actually), and while it doesn't aim to represent totalitarianism or hypocrisy or anything Orwellian of the sort, its piercing and, yes, lovely focus on motherhood, love and family is equally powerful.

The writing style is very, very simple, as befits a story narrated by a chicken. Readers who like their prose a bit meatier may find the childlike style frustrating; I personally felt that it matched the story quite well. Sprout is a fascinating character (beyond her chicken-isms), and her world is one filled with messages we could all do well to remember. This is a book I'm very glad to have found, and very glad to have read. There's a lot to love here.