Hwang Sunwon’s mostly brilliant collection “Lost Souls” (Translated by the Fultons)

Cover of Hwang Sunwon's "Lost Seouls"

Cover of Hwang Sunwon's "Lost Souls"

Lost Souls is a collection of three smaller collections of Hwang Sunwon. Brilliantly translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton it is comprised of Pond, a collection Hwang wrote in the 1930s while in college; The Dog of Crossover Village published in 1948, and; Lost Souls published in 1958.

This is eventually a great collection, but one that is initially difficult to get into for two reasons having to do with the chronological order of the three included collections. First Hwang was not at his strongest as a writer at the outset of his career, and second because his work was initially constrained by political exigencies of his time. Some of this is explained in the afterword, by which time it is too late for most readers, who will have plowed through the first section to the really good stuff, or put the book down. Suffice it to say that the Japanese colonialists were not all about stories of social reality and Hwang had to work under that restriction.

The afterword also notes that Hwang was judged harshly because he was seen as too lyrical (he does get a bit purple, even in translation) and not possessing a “historical consciousness.”  Which is certainly true of his first collection here, Pond – as I read it I was pretty well bored with everything but its style, which I should note was enough to keep me reading. By the second collection, however, Hwang is churning along at full speed and to a Western eye the accusation that Hwang is insufficiently historically conscious seems ludicrous  as the stories seem to teem with social and political comment.

The stories in Pond lack any real gravity. They are vividly told, but often lack characterization, are relatively plotless, frequently lack conclusion, and meander.  I read them wondering why there was no center to them, a question I began to ask more stridently as I moved into The Dog of Crossover Village and Lost Souls, which were both tightly plotted and focused.

This is not to say that the stories in Pond are completely without charm, in fact the vivid style is quite impressive, it just seems to be in the service of very little.  Couples lazily circle each other and never quite connect (The Pond, Trumpet Shells) while Hwang spends long, elliptical passages describing insects, vegetation, and the fall of shadows. It’s all very moody, with an elegant structure of words hung on slightly off-kilter scenes that just don’t connect with a reader. I think it is emblematic that the editors, in the afterword, don’t bother to discuss any of these stories individually.

In the The Dog of Crossover Village portion of the book, this turns around rather sharply and if a reader finds the Pond stories a bit confusing or bizarre, skipping ahead to Lost Souls will provide an immediate tonic. The first story, Booze, is amusing as a man ‘reclaiming’ his house from the Japanese slowly turns it, and his life, into a kind of doppleganger of the Japanese colonialism. The characters are sharply drawn, and sharply opposed and the story ends (unlike many of the previous stories!) in a scene of tragic comedy.

Toad is the story of two old friends who use each to victimize and old lady in the midst of a terrible housing shortage, while House is a brilliant story demonstrating that not only is there more than one way to skin a cat (in this case accumulation of land by the new landowning class), but that gambling is baaad^^. Bulls follows a young man through a rite of passage, and To Smoke a Cigarette is a neatly plotted vignette in which the time it takes to smoke a hand-rolled cigarette is the time it takes to forget. Finally, My Father tells a sad but noble story about the cost of surviving the Japanese, while The Dog of Crossover Village (which I disliked the first time I read) tells the amusing (the villagers, at least, are all amusingly self serving) tale of a dog and partial redemption.

The Lost Souls section does not include one story, Mountains, for reasons not explained in the afterword. The afterword likes it as the best section of the book, but I have it as a close second as it occasionally dabbles in the apparent randomness of the first section.

Deathless is one of these stories. Although the plot is tight, it also spends some time wandering around in a bucolic haze. In Deathless a very evil traveling salesman attempts one last scam whose success depends on a rather arbitrary trick at the end.

Lost Souls, unaccountably a favorite of Korean and editors, is the weakest story in the last third of the book, featuring one of those “poor citizens adrift in currents beyond their control” stories.  This may be representative of reality at the time, or sensible in the relatively agency-less world of Korean fiction, but it reads as inevitable and dour to a Western sensibility. Further, it relies on an initial plot twist that seems somewhere between arbitrary and stupid from a Western perspective.

Pibari seems a return to that kind of well-described but poky rural reverie with which the book began. But this is a feint that is shockingly broken by the behavior of the title character and her motives as revealed at the story’s conclusion.

Voices is a hallucinatory story of war and death which features, well, hallucinations and misunderstandings which unravel a life. It’s a short story, but full of vivid images and by its end you feel the complete destruction of the narrator, although he is continuing with his life.

A great collection (hey, did I just upgrade it) with a great translation.

YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN! Note: The print in this volume is excruciatingly small, even for an old dude with reading glasses.

HOW MANY BUCKWHEAT BLOSSOMS? The three sections vary, with the first being very culture-specific in both content and meandering style, something like 3.75 blossoms out of 5. The next two have plenty of culture specific information, but it is presented in plots that are easily accessible. So, overall, I’m giving this only 3 Buckwheat blossoms out of 5. This is a very readable book for someone with no background in Korean culture, particularly as it goes on.

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