A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball, by Cho Se-hui

The Portable Library of Korean Literature • Short Fiction • 2 • Jimoondang Publishing • Seoul

Those who dwell in heaven have no occasion to concern themselves with hell. But since the five of us lived in hell, we dreamed of heaven… Each and every day was an ordeal. Our life was like a war. Everyday we lost a battle. (Page 7)

This passage is drawn from the first paragraph of Cho Se-hui’s A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball, and it aptly sums up the tragic story

A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball is the keystone story, of 12 total, in the larger work The Dwarf. This short story introduces readers to the main “character” in the larger work, a dwarf and his family. The dwarf is physically handicapped, only 117 centimeters tall (roughly 4 feet), and 32 kilograms in weight (roughly 70 pounds). The family: father, mother, Yeong-su, Yeong-ho, Yeong-hui, stand for the entire Korea working class of the 1970s; oppressed, marginalized and if needs be, discarded, in the new economic structures of production, consumption, and distribution that the Korean state is avidly building.

Worse, they have built their house in an unauthorized area, and the house is now due to be razed. The government offers “recompense” for the loss, but it is not sufficient for the dwarf’s family (or any of the other displaced families) to rent new housing. The family is sundered, the dwarf becomes ill and dies in a factory smokestack (in my previous post I said he had committed suicide, but this is not made entirely clear by the text, and it can be read either way), the children are forced to go to work in soul and body-crushing factories, and the daughter eventually prostitutes herself in order to get the deed to the families’ property back.

This is one of the translated works that makes me wish I could read Korean, because I feel that certain elements of the story are floating beyond my comprehension. One example of this is a “book within a book” motif that Cho uses. He mentions a book The World after Ten Thousand Years and it sounds like he is referring to a real book (whether real or not, this is another clever authorial stance – creating a fantasy within the dingy fantasy of the larger story), but the translation of the title turns nothing up on Google and I can’t refer to the original text to track it down. Similarly, the dwarf launches an airplane and a ball towards the moon and in translation I’m not sure if he see (or if there actually is) some symbolism in these phrases. Is the “metal ball” a spaceship? I simply can’t tell. Perhaps I’m not supposed to be able to tell, but it is a bit frustrating. 😉

Technically speaking, he book is divided into three chapters, each one told by one of the children. This is the first indication of Cho’s atomized writing style, a style that is ideally suited for the description of an atomized society such as the one he writes about. Shin Soojeong notes, about Cho’s general style:

Cho opened up a new history in the form of Korean novels by renouncing the standard of realism, experimenting with sentences, and by being bold enough to draw a fantasy-based reality based on fables into the narration of his novels. He brought about a turning point in the history of Korean novels, which allowed for the yoking of realism and anti-realism, and the unity of social and aesthetic aspects in literature. As long as the questions proposed by A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball remain current, its meaning will not be diminished. And therein lies the power that enabled this book, first printed in 1978 … to go through over 240 printings up to the present.

I have read that there are now over 245 printings of the book. It is very brief, only 84 pages in print, and if you are interested in reading it, you can find it in downloadable PDF (only 24 pages!) from from the fine folks at the Korea Journal.


Shin Soojeong

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