Eun Hee-Kyung’s (은희경) Poor Man’s Wife (빈처) – Review

Poor Man's Wife CoverEun Hee-kyung’s Poor Man’s Wife is another excellent volume in the “Bi-lingual Edition Modern Korean Literature” published by Asia Publishers. I had the pleasure of meeting Eun Hee-kyung, which is covered here, and she is a sharp and clear-writing author of works focusing on the role and position of women in modern Korean. The story is told in a typical (Judging from My Wife’s Boxes, the only other story of Eun’s that has been translated into English) Eunian narrative trap. While the story is primarily that of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, it is told through the voice of a husband who is surreptitiously reading his wife’s diary, with the woman’s diary acting as something like a source text. Her voice is present in the diary, of course, but the husband is always busy re-interpreting it to suit himself and all the action of the story is told through his voice.

Poor Man’s Wife is the anti Heartlessness by Yi Kwang-su, which makes Poor Man’s Wife both modern and reactionary in its way. Yi is notably famous for writing the first “modern” novel in Korean, partly identifiable as so because it argued for “free love”, or the ability to choose a marriage based on emotion, not on Korean/Confucian tradition. While Yi saw this as emotionally sound and the basis for a modern world, Eun shares no such notion, seeing marriage for love as just another trap set by the modern world. In this novel, a marriage that begins in romantic pursuit ends in the dust of … well…. Marriage.

As the story begins, our husband-narrator has just found his wife’s diary, and it reveals that she is extremely unhappy in her life, and has a fantasy life that includes at least one ‘lover’ and perhaps two. The narrator is at first perplexed by what he reads, but sets about to try to understand it the best he can. The best he can, however, is not very good. One of the amusing things about the story is the self-serving manner in which the husband interprets the diary, perhaps accurately identifying himself as an ‘existing’ lover in the diary, but certainly misinterpreting himself as a ‘dream lover’ who shows up later. Wherever he possibly can he inserts himself into his wife’s narrative and tries very hard to make himself the hero of it, despite what reality (as expressed both in the diary and in his descriptions of daily life reveal). This is paired with his stream of self-justifying excuses for his daily behavior towards his wife, which is basically to come home late, exceedingly drunk, flop into bed, wake up the next morning, go to work, and repeat the pattern endlessly.

While the husband is certainly correct that Korean society places some absurd demands on the time of salarymen (there is an amusing scene in which his company attempts to foster family unity in the most ridiculous way possible), in the cases when he is at home with his wife, he only feels uncomfortable, as though it were an imposition, and observes his wife with the cold dispassion of a scientist about to dissect a small amphibian. Eun, without overtly judging, lets the narrator blithely skewer himself. One of the great things about this book, unrelated directly to Eun, is it is one of those books in the series in which the critics who comment (see note below about the awesome structure of these books), have to struggle mightily to save their own sanity in the face of the reality of the text. When Korean critic Kim Mi-hyun writes:

Eun Hee-kyung tries to write genderless fiction, which, at least on the surface, makes it hard to determine whether her stories are written by a woman or man … She emphasizes that she is not interested in women in particular, but in human beings in general, not in masculinity, but in men as the pawns of an absurd world.

Kim seems to be jumping into bed (so to speak) with the husband/narrator and willfully ignoring the real issue of Kim’s work – that married women are in positions of almost absolute powerlessness, and that even their stories, in Korean society, tend to be seen through them male gaze (a term I normally hate, as it has been used by freshman gender-studies students until it has almost no particular meaning) – two realities that Eun cleverly displays in her stories, and particularly in her unusual narrative structures. Another winner in the parade of new literature that is coming out of the translation machine(s) in Korea^^. You can pick it up on Amazon here, but it is worth purchasing the entire collection. The book is available here and the collection is available here:

NOTE ABOUT THE COLLECTION There are actually three collections here, “Bi-lingual Edition Modern Korean Literature Volume One”, Volume Two, and apparently a Volume Three has just been published. The collections are of 15 small volumes each, and each collection is broken into topics with the first collections comprising Division, Industrialization, and Women; the second comprising Liberty, Love, and North/South, and; the third collection out too recently for me to know.^^ In addition, each story comes with a kind of critical summary, several bits of critical analysis, and a biography of the author. When these pieces are put together, it makes the stories much easier to read, as the necessary cultural and historical background is neatly presented to the reader.