Homecoming (퇴근) by Cheon Myeong-kwan (천명관)

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 12.59.42 PMIt’s difficult to place Homecoming  by Cheon Myeong-Kwan (Asia Publishers) as either a Super-dystopic, after the crash novel or as a rugged individualist story in which hard work is rewarded and sloth discarded in the most horrible way.

OK, no it’s not, it’s a super-dystopic view of what would happen in Seoul if the continuing trends of family decay and income separation are taken to their full extremes.

Author Cheon Mywong-kwan is not much one for subtlety. By page three it is revealed that there is nuclear war in the Middle East, perhaps five-million  people (Roughly 10 percent of Korea’s present population, known as ‘blankets’ in the book) live as pathetic wards of the state, there is a strong market in human organ trafficking (and if you don’t love that market I’d like to hear why, “Mr. Anti-Capitalism!), as well as an awesome bureaucratic character a petulant, fat coordinator eating a sugar-coated doughnut who argues that these ‘blankets’ wouldn’t be better utilized if they were rendered into soap. After all, the rules of capitalism and profit are clear and unassailable –  So much so that the international language, capitalism, has become the official language of Korea

The story begins as the blankets wait in line to submissively accept abuse and vouchers which they need for food and other necessities One blanket. the father of a young boy whose mother has has left dome years ago,  is indirectly approached about his half-Korean child.   Adopted children (vide Brad Pit and Angela Jolie) have become myeong-pum, or valuable goods and a child who appears in good health are at a premium.

There is 90% in general, with the 10% who are employed living on the south side of the Han with the “old” Seoul reduced to a slum.

Cheon makes some points [about the  celar distinction between making money by production and money “making money” with the boy dreaming of someday being an office worker – the idea of being an actual “physical” worker seeming loathesome. There is also a large and apparently at least semi allowed black market that traffics in cigarettes, psychedelics, prostitution, and liquor.

Here the father attempts to buy drugs for his asthmatic son but the prices have gone up “some of the rich are up to tricks.” Driving the prices up because steroids are so useful for many diseases of aging has made them quite profitable. The prices of the steroids drive the father to despair, and he decides he must sell his son.

The Father goes back to the coordinator and says he might offer his son up for adoption. As a goodbey he gets dressed up, puts on a ‘badge’ (proof of being an office worker which he has luckily just found) and goes out for one last grand dinner with his son, so they can share at least one last happy memory. When the unpayable bill comes it is shockingly paid for by an old man at the bar.

The old man is, in fact, the grandfather who reveals that he never abandoned them, instead the company quite literally does not let him go home – This is the Korean tendency to insist that Korean workers work long hours taken to its ultimately absurd extreme. The grandfather says “I haven’t been able to come home because I haven’t finished my work yet.”

The “commentary” ending this book has the uncharitable comment that “the protagonist’s dramatic encounter with this long lost “father who has not been able to leave his office” may not be the most effective way to resolve the issues raised in the story”, but in fact it rather neatly does so by re-establishing what might be called a “middle-class” which has become the ultimate dream of theKorean Chaebol, the 24-7 salaryman, but reproduced as a kind of slave. The title, 퇴근, in fact, seems like a kind of joke, since it actually means leaving work to go home, and that is the one thing that this book reveals to be impossible.

The translation by Jeon MIseli is good, and like all the Asia Publishers the work is bilingual and features critical and biographical information that is quite useful for a reader. Definitely worth a look, and if these works ever come out as ebooks, it would be a necessity.

2 thoughts on “Homecoming (퇴근) by Cheon Myeong-kwan (천명관)

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