In the Depths

Hahn Moo Sook’s excellent volume of short stories, “In the Depths,” contains nine short stories. These works focus on issues of control and loss of control. The stories, while all satisfying, approach and achieve greatness to the extent that they focus on mechanisms of control, whether these be political, social, personal, or economic. Hahn’s works are weakest when she pulls away from this explicit theme and instead focuses on what I would characterize as symptoms or conditions resulting from lack of control.

The collection begins with a painful trifle, “Shadow,” the story of a woman trapped in amber between the incompletely socialized emergent paradigm of romantic love and the embedded Confucian paradigm of loyalty to family. This piece serves as a kind of appetizer for what is to come.

The second story, “Put Me To Sleep,” along with “Among the Marching Columns,” is one of the two revelatory stories in this collection. Both stories are the tightly plotted intertwinings of lives in which social expectations unsettle existences and, ultimately, destroy lives. “Put Me To Sleep” begins:

The whole thing was neither true nor false; nevertheless it was experienced. One had to accept it through the senses; logic had nothing to do with it.

“Put Me To Sleep” proceeds to follow the story of “marked” child and a “marked” doctor, and the childbirth prophesies which follow, and lead, them to their graves. Hahn does a brilliant job of interlacing instances of symbolic palimpsesting (a father to be writing, erasing, and re-writing messages in sand), precognition, and deja-vu in such ways that they clearly suggest an unusual relationship between the doctor and the child, but when the nature of the relationship finally is revealed, it comes as a shock nonetheless. Hahn also cleverly interweaves flashbacks into her story, and when the final two flashbacks reveal how the doctor and child are related across time, and the outcome of their final meeting, most readers will shudder in mixed amazement and loathing. “Put Me To Sleep” is a remarkable story.

“Among the Marching Columns” also interweaves life stories. In this case two youths whose lives have been connected, far across social lines, since birth. As in “Put Me To Sleep” the narrator is a step out of beat with society. This “semi-detached narrator” in these two stoires is a clever approach, as it allows Hahn to created some narrative breathing-space in her tight plot. “Among the Marching Columns” ends semi-paradoxically, with the main characters finally re-united by tragedy.

“In the Depths” is currently out of print, but on the basis of these two stories alone, it is worthy of a reprint.

Two of the other stories are less dramatic, certainly less claustrophobic, but also quite good. “Dr. Chung” describes the re-union of two doctors, some thirty years after their friendship and competition in medical school. They have taken radically different paths, one going on to fame and fortune, the other to a reduced practice in a backwater village. But there is a link between them still, of less tenuous existence than it initially seems, and the shadow it casts is far more powerful than its narrator might have expected.

“A Halo Around The Moon” is a different kind of story. Its narrator is an elderly woman, widowed early in life, who has cocooned herself in a steely-withdrawal from all things sensual. When one of her tenants goes into childbirth, the widow finds herself face to face with a lifetime spent insulated from physical connection and must decide whether to follow control, or in some way give in to life.

The remaining stories are less strenuously plotted, in fact some tend towards the purely descriptive. These stories are well written, entertaining to read, and often laced with bathos, but they do not rise to the ferocious inevitability of “Sleep” and “Columns,” or possess the narrative strength of “Dr. Chung” or “Halo.” It is not that “slice of life” stories are inherently limited: Cho Se-hui’s “A Dwarf Tosses a Ball” uses the same kind of approach, but by providing more variegated slices of life, Cho puts together a much more coherent picture than Hahn does.

“In the Depths” is a fairly standard bit of melodrama – young lovers, an affair, and madness. I could easily see this work translated to modern Korean TV drama. “By the Fire” tells the story of dispossessed orphans, “Splinters” the story of dispossessed families, and “A Place for Fate and Festivity” (surely one of the worst short-story titles of all time?), tells the story of a woman who will shortly lose possession of her life. All are entertaining, readable, but not spectacular.

The translation is occasionally a bit clunky, but it is serviceable. The book-sleeve alarmingly warns that ‘the western reader may find some minor difficulty” in reading the stores, but this should be taken with a grain of salt; it is more a relic of the era in which the book was originally published (the 1960s) than a real worry.

I found this work available online at Amazon.com. It is always a happy surprise what the internet has done for the availability of out of print works. The bad news is, of course, the seller is asking $98.00 dollars for the work. Oh yeah, it’s also in Chinese!

Fortunately, Bibliomania has an English version available for only 75 dollars, but I may just snap it up.

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