After reading my way through the absolutely horrible Hong Gildong (again, not the Jimoondang fiction, but the folk-tale), I was a bit apprehensive about reading Park Wan-suh’s Weathered Blossom, even though I’ve liked everything I’ve read of hers. The fear was purely based on similarity – another small book with a lovely cover and.. maybe .. another crappy translation.
A closer look, however, reassured me that likely all would be well. I saw Yu Young-nan’s name as translator (Who Ate Up All the Shinga, Three Generations, etc) and I have yet to come across any of her work that was not seamless and completely out of the way of the reader.
Also, of course, Park Wan-suh has yet to disappoint me, and this work was no different.
Weathered Blossom is the austered story of a semi-love affair between two older people who meet on a bus to Seoul. The story is arranged in two sections of roughly equal length. In the first section the woman, disgruntled and out of sorts (and even slightly out of time in a hanbok) returns from a family wedding in which she feels she was mistreated. On the bus she meets an elegant-looking older man. This first section proceeds at a leisurely pace as the bus wanders through the Korean countryside.
Once home, the old woman finds occasion to look the old man up, and a kind of romance ensues. In the end, the old woman, bothered by her own marks of age and the lack of lust in an October relationship, breaks it off by flying to the United States to re-unite with her son.
That’s a plot summary that makes the book seem less than it is. In fact, it is a fairly bleak meditation on aging and what that means for emotional life, particularly in those places emotional life intersects with physical life. In essence, the old woman believes that without “lust,” love is unsupportable. Park hints at this conclusion throughout the book; the old ladies’ feeling of abandonment and betrayal at the wedding is a precursor of how she comes to feel about her body and emotions, at the end.
A rather remarkable preface (partly remarkable because it comes at the end of the book), chooses to conclude that Park’s conclusion is a ‘proper’ one, in a passage that is slightly contradictory to parse:
The lady believes that love is beautiful only with lust, as it is the only way to be blinded. Thus she realizes elders in love can not be anything by a charming façade, then humbly accepts reality. However to say her lustless love is not beautiful is incorrect, as she humbly accepts the limitation of age and reality.
This seems, to me, a bit of a surrender to Confucian notions of proper behavior for widowed women. The idea that this might be emotional/Confucian scarpering is buttressed by the fact that the old woman, while unhappy with her aged body, does not begin to chafe against the relationship until her family, and the family of her aged beaux, become aware of the relationship and, eventually, in favor of it. The relationship is fine as long as society is unaware. As soon as society is aware, the widow begins to consider where she will be buried, as though she is in some way betraying her eventual burial plot next to her deceased husband. All of which, I suppose, supports the argument that Park might agree with the preface.
Weathered Blossom also presents a rather bleak view of what one can expect in the emotional life of old age. I am also unclear on how an adequately performed charade cannot be blinding. Perhaps I am not yet old enough, although that seems unlikely from where I sit. 😉
As usual, Park also charms me by what she leaves out. Discussing the bus ride on which she meets the old gent she says:
We didn’t talk about clichés, such as how old we had been when the Korean War broke out, what kinds of hardships we had gone through, where we had gone to take refuge. Instead we exchanged spontaneous remarks.
I don’t want to put too much pressure on this one passage, but to me it sums up why Park’s writing appealing to westerners. It is not that the things Park’s characters go on to talk about are not clichés – rather it is that they are not intra-Korean clichés; that is clichés that will mean nothing to a western reader.
The only thing that is a bit odd, is that rather than simply alternating pages of Korean and English text, this books lumps them semi-randomly in an effort to keep the rather longer English text somewhere near the Korean text. I would have preferred, perhaps, different text sizes to achieve the same end, but I really can’t complain too much about this.
Weathered Blossom is part of a Hollym series of translations that partly overlaps the Jimoondang series. But these are worth picking up because the original Korean is in them, the books are small but feel substantial, the covers and internal artwork are appropriate, and the books even have the little string bookmarks built into the cover.