From Powder to Powder by Kim Hun
Land of Exile
Armonk, New York
Many Korean short stories are about cycles. Sometimes this is the traditional (historical) Korean cycle of separation, diaspora and return, and sometimes the cycle is a far less optimistic one. Such is the case in Kim Hun’s “From Powder to Powder” which hammers a semi-cyclical message home with bleak nihilism, leavened by flashes of alarming humor. The clever title evokes the Biblical phrase on cycles, “from dust to dust,” while also describing the equipoise of the tale – a man positioned between the death and incineration (creating the first powder) of his wife, and his career marketing beauty products (the second powder). As the story works towards it’s dusty ending, it becomes clear that while some cycles are inevitable, hope of return is vain.
In the main plot, physical and emotional exile reaches everywhere into life, even into souls. At the same time a sub-plot focused on advertising products to women brings unexpected levity. The story begins as the conventional (if that is fair) deathwatch of the wife of an advertising executive. Here Kim uses stark, brutal terms to describe how this cycle ends, “the flesh around her vulva had wasted away as well … the outer lips of her vagina blackened and stuck together like two pieces of charred meat. I couldn’t believe that out daughter had been born from that place.” Kim’s vision of “the circle of life” is decidedly not that from “The Lion King,” and by focusing on the mother’s reproductive organs and the daughter’s life, Kim strongly suggests we all be aware what awaits the daughter as well. Later, Kim has a doctor make the argument explicit: “The life-force can’t be adulterated; it can’t be transformed. And the impossibility of transformation is what defines the phenomenon of life.”
This goes beyond mere stoicism.
Kim injects humor in two set pieces, one describing the narrator’s bladder being drained and the other discussing strategies for marketing cosmetics to women. At a board meeting Director O muses, about a vaginal cleanser, that, “it worked well enough, except that it failed to remove all of the menstrual flow and had side effects, such as inflammation and a burning sensation in the vaginal wall. And there were cases in which the jelly was contaminated with urine and found its way deep inside the vagina, where it turned into a foul-smelling discharge.’ (321) Later, another director discusses the vagina, “So each one is different – well, even if they are, how can we manufacture something for each and every one? Here we are with a wide-open market and it’s hard to get in the door.” This is not only amusing for its semi-askew metaphorical content, but also evidence of the cleverness of the translation (by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) which allows bawdy double-entendres to come shining through. It also makes me wish I could read Korean, so I could judge how close to the original thoughts, these metaphors are. In any case, they read splendidly in English and there is certainly at least one good academic paper waiting to be written about this stories/ obsession with the female vagina, but that won’t be the one I’m doing here.
As his wife dies and in the aftermath of her death, the executive focuses on his infatuation with Ch’u Únju, another employee of the company. The death scenes are harrowing, but the conclusion of the story is even more harrowing. The executive attends his wife’s cremation and the theme of cycles and alienation is mechanical and explicit as he watches:
Incineration 121: Will the bereaved please come to the observation room to receive the ashes.
Incineration 122: Cycle to end 130 PM
Incineration 123 Cycle to end 1:40 PM
Finally, it ends, “we saw the red display above the door to the incinerator: end of cycle.”
After the death of the narrator’s wife, a series of unexpected but not unlikely events result in the narrator severing all personal connections. Ch’u Únju is let go by the company and by that time the narrator is removed from concern for her. More shockingly he takes Pori (named for the Buddhist term for “supremely enlightened), his wife’s healthy dog, in to be euthanized on the basis that he will not be able to care for it and “My wife wanted it to be reborn as a human next time around.” (p. 339) Kim stresses the venality of this: Not only was the dog his wife’s “first thought” after her tumor-induced headache attacks, but the dog is a full-blooded Jindo, the national dog of Korea.
Finally, the narrator has disposed of his wife, his ‘dearly beloved’ Ch’u Únju has gone to the United States, and the dog Pori has been sent to join his mistress. The narrator concludes with a passage that can be read as a threat, a Buddhist promise of nirvana, or simple banal evil. “That night, for the first time in a long while, I slept deeply, ever so deeply, my awareness dissipating into nothingness” (p. 339).