Hwang Jung-Eun’s Kong’s Garden (Originally titled “Yang’s Future”, a title making a play on the meaning of the future of an unmarried woman and one that gives a glimpse at the often random titling of translations), is a glimpse of the post-modern world of the worker. A future in which the single female narrator, who remains unnamed, is never anything more nor anything less than merely a worker. In a Korean world in which education has historically meant everything, Hwang’s narrator both realizes that this is not true (through her partner in an essentially loveless affair) and that the recognition of this fact does not surprise her at all. In fact, when the narrator does realize that she has been nothing but a worker all her life, in a world of little people working and dying, she has no particular reaction beyond recognition of this fact and acceptance of it.
This equanimity is particularly dystopic (Imagine Cormac McCarthy writing about the boring lives of clerks) in that the narrator physically loses her mother during the events of the book, and metaphorically moves from a land of light, a bookstore gloriously lit with 200 light bulbs, to a dingy sub-basement either shrinking due to mold, or with a mysterious tunnel to an even deeper, darker, room. That room, it is strongly suggested, is tied by a tunnel to an even deeper world, a world from which a stench-laden breeze occasionally wafts out. Each step of this process is accompanied by small to large indignities that the narrator takes as a given part of life, another feature of the ever darker plain on which she lives.
The narrator is drawn into a larger story when she refuses to sell cigarettes to Jinju, a young woman in the company of two intimidation men. The young woman immediately goes missing. It is only this tragedy that makes the narrator important at all, while at the same time minimizing her. As the police, for instance, question her about her final interaction with the missing girl the narrator realizes that “the more important the questions were, the more often I told them I didn’t know.” Nothing important from the narrator, nothing important in the story,nothing important in the young girl’s death.
In the background, the story of the title, that of a small cat and its family, echoes the larger narratives. The cat are born, disappear, re-appear, breed, die, and nothing changes. Life becomes a long, boring economic calculation with the narrator’s father planning to die when he feels himself an economic burdent d and the narrator herself, when not idly searching the Internet for evidence of the corpse of the missing Jinju, finding herself, with her relatives, romantic options, and economic opportunities dwindling away, agreeing with George Orwell that in such a case you should “Just die poor and with anyone”, and ending to which the symbolic gravity of the book is drawing her.
In the end, either numbed by the endless plain of the precariat, or afraid of what she might find, the narrator never explores the possibility of the tunnel in the basement, leaving it the only unexplored aspect of the book. Perhaps that is intended to give us hope, perhaps that is intended to suggest to us that the spiral that sucks us down has many more doors from which we, once entered, might never return.
As usual in the Asia Publishers series the work is bilingual and well translated( in this case by Jeon Seung-hee). The “extras” are a little bit skimpier than those of the previous K-literature works (the biographies are particularly scanty), but these extras still make these works the best Korean fiction to begin with, because they cast light that both outlines the shadows of the works, and often illuminates the mold and decay hidden behind them. This, along with Danny and Homecoming represent a brilliant mid-year trilogy of novellas on the ever eroding social relationships on which Korea stands (or used to) .