Kwon Sun-chan and Nice People is by Lee Ki-ho who has also had At Least We Can Apologize and So Far, and Yet So Near translated into English. It is a very short story of two men and a problem. The narrator is a professor living away from Seoul and his family. He lives in a run-down apartment that is out of the way even for the countryside. As the story opens he is suffering from a case of writer’s block caused by a combination of lethargy and rage, or a case of lethargy and rage caused by writer’s block. To get to sleep he frequents a nearby pub, where he drinks maekju (Beer with soju mixed in). He is also prone to taking his rage out on those about him, for reasons he does not fully understand. This pattern has gone on, more or less, for eight years.
This rut-like life is interrupted one day when a strange and vague “off” looking man appears at the pub and then shortly outside of the apartment. The man is Kwon Sun-chan of the book’s title, and he is there to attempt to get back 7,000,000 won, which has been overpaid to a loan shark. The loan shark, however, does not live in room 502 of the apartment, as Kwon believes. Kwon’s arrival breaks up everybody’s rut – over time his small encampment and protest sign come to dominate everyone’s consciousness. This includes the woman in 502, who goes into self-imposed exile within her own apartment.
It is here the “Nice People” of the title kick in as they communally attempt to create a solution to the situation. One of the central questions asked by this short novella, though never asked explicitly is, “why are these people being nice?” As time goes by it become increasingly clear what solution Kwon wants and that it is not one that the apartment residents can provide. This only increases the sense of impotence that the apartment residents feel; an impotence that increasingly turns to anger.
And this is Lee’s point. The ending is a kind of reveal which tears off any bandaids that the previous proceedings might have had, and it is in this that Lee draws his final conclusions on how society warps our reactions to each other. In that way it is entirely of a piece with his At Least We Can Apologize, which also demonstrates how our power structure bends us to its own uses or, just bends us. The translation by Stella Kim is solid and the volume contains the original Korean text, a “Writer’s Note”, “Commentary”, and “Critical Acclaim” sections. Lee’s comments suggest that he might have shared the writer’s block that the narrator endures, and for similar reasons. The “Critical Acclaim” is an amusingly brief two paragraphs, one each by two critics, that manages to somehow fit in the phrase “sweating like a pig”^^, which seems to be a rather liberal translation of something like “spilling sweat.”^^
Another story of alienation by Lee, by which I mean a solid read in modern/post-modern Korean fiction.