Gong Jiyoung (공지영), whose preferred Romanization is Ji-Young Gong, is (like many Korean writers), a strongly political writer, one might even say politically correct, and in works like “The Crucible” that outlook and her strong sense of outrage have worked strongly to her advantage. That book has been made into a powerful movie, and rumour has it that it will be translated into English soon.
However in Human Decency (인간에 대한 예의) the earnestness of Gong politics drags the story into cliches, and drains it of the interest it could have contained..
Human Decency pits a facilely “international” character, who has had the nerve to look outside of Korea, against a “true Korean hero” who has relentlessly stayed inside the grinder of Korean politics. It has that peculiar kind of Korean romanticism about Korean history that does not translate into English.
The narrator is worried by her abandonment of youthful political purity, a friend of hers was killed by riot police and she snuck away from the “movement”, and she brings that angst to her assignments. In this Manichean construction she meets Gwon Ogyu a “noble” rebel and also Yi Minja, who has spent an international life. The narrator both loathes and loves (but mainly loathes) Yi, and in this struggle seems to argue that anything modern is, in fact a way, to spurn Korean history and society.
The narrator’s stance towards “outsiders” is clear in that when she first interviews a Korean author who has studied in India, she admits that despite reading the book she can’t remember the guru’s name. It’s an embarrassing moment.
Gong’s narrator gives the game away when she says about her interview subject,
She was Korean, the same as I. Now that she had returned to here homeland, why should it matter whether her master was Indian, American, or some other nationality.
LOL.. Ok.. so only Korea is important.. I get it.^^
The narrator also goes into paroxysms of some sort when she works on foreign subjects, sliding into the false dualism that seems downright amusing to anyone who lives in Seoul, for whom these descriptions could easily apply to myeongpum (luxury goods) loving Koreans, or Doenjang Girls in Apgujeong (To be fair to Gong, she may have intended the criticism to apply to Koreans as well, but if so it surely does not come through in the work)
I wondered how the people in those countries could have such bright faces, faces devoid of guilt and apology. How could the drink beer every day with salad and fruit slices? How could they go around so proudly in such expensive clothes?
In other words, how could they not be Korean? That this is the real issue is clear in the question, “How could they drink beer every day with salad and fruit slices?” which is actually a Korean pairing of food and alcohol and ludicrous in many western countries.. But it goes on:
What the hell am I doing here looking at slides of exotic foreign food? My friends, the friends I had so passionately declared my love for, had they even tried such food? Would they ever ride in the family car and practice good housekeeping by eating those foods?
The food Gong calls “exotic” include spaghetti, thousand island dressing, and lettuce wrapped sausage. This is Korean exceptionalism of the silliest kind, and again, as one wanders through Seoul today, seems like a complaint from a previous dynasty.
When the present comes, of course, all the “true” rebels are dead or sold out – a convenient Manicheism that is often used in literature; kill a few rebels so they can never be seen turning into businessmen or spaghetti salespeople.
Kwong, on the other hand, is a noble and poor rebel, dying (partly) of his mistreatment for being a democracy activist. He has “shaken” the nation in 1970’s, during a time of political stricture, and he is now paying the price for his good deeds.
Gong’s argument is a “one true path” one: Gong’s relentless contrast of Yi to Gwon is both one-sided and excludes any other options.And of course, the symbolism has to be facile in parallel, with the journalist who prides herself on naming her articles instantly naming the one and struggling with the other. The article on Gwon, of course, will be the one that focuses on decency.
This kind of theme was better handler, and with more subtlety by Ch’oe Yun, in Grey Snowman.
The writing (and translation by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton is good, and Gong has a particularly good way with symbolism including, notably, radishes sprouting and the power of the closed door and confined space, but that is not enough to overcome the predictability of the story.
Paperback: 131 pages
Publisher: ASIA Publishers (2012)
Translator: Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton
NOTE ABOUT THE COLLECTION
There are actually three collections here, “Bi-lingual Edition Modern Korean Literature Volume One”, Volume Two, and 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 comprising Seoul, Tradition, and Avant Garde
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.
NOTE: This work has been previously reviewed on KTLIT in its Jimoondang edition, which can be found here.