Pak Wan-so was a relatively late-bloomer as a published author, writing her first novel just before she turned 40. In some ways this is not surprising, since it was only in the late 1960s that any substantial number of women entered the literary ranks in Korea. Since that time she has become the Grand Dame of Korean letters, in 1981 receiving the prestigious Yi Sang award for her novel, Mother’s Stake. But as Who Ate Up All the Shinga an “autobiographical novel” reveals, the authorial seeds were planted young. Who Ate Up All the Shinga’s relation to fiction is not at all coincidental. Park tips her hand on this on the book-sleeve, where she calls her work an “autobiographical novel.” In fact, it is a compelling story of a young girl who seems, almost unknown to herself, to be destined to write and then finally reaches that conclusion herself.
There is a certain tension in that semi-oxymoronic phrase, “autobiographical novel”, and that tension reflects one of the books’ larger issues, identity. The larger sense of Park’s search for identity is mirrored elsewhere in plot. As I will discuss shortly, this issue of identity is also found in the Mother’s behavior. The Park family struggles with issues of identity, beginning with her Grandfather who adopted, often to comic effect, the airs of Yangban and continuing on to the families’ struggle over the assumption of Japanese names, through the Mother’s sometimes comical identity contortions, and even to political stances. The question is no different for Pak herself, who sometimes describes her youth in ways that point to a kind of otherness, an inbred and evolving narrative voice. This feeling first comes upon her when she is only four years old, she sees her village from an angle she does not usually see it and, “it looked completely different … I couldn’t bear it and burst into tears” (18). This is Pak’s first recognition that she is in some way an outsider, and observer. In a latter passage, Pak describes her first efforts to control her mise-en-scene as she observes swaying millet stalks that bring a similar sadness, “This time, though, I tried to find ways to accentuate my melancholy. What could I do to make that swaying sadder, drearier” (18)? These are the baby steps of an artist. A certain sense of being an outsider, “I always lagged on the periphery … From the fringe, it was easy to observe what was going on” (61), turns into a habit, “Walking to school alone for six long years had a significant effect on my character. For one thing, I learned to entertain myself” (135). These are the words of a narrator coming into being. Park’s awareness comes in fits and starts, and it is firmly placed in the context of the family, “Mother’s storytelling talent instilled in me a love of narrative (107)
This process culminates in a chapter entitled, “Epiphany” in which Park finally realizes who she is, and what she wants to be. “I felt as though I’d been chased into a dead end but then suddenly turned around. Surely there was meaning in my being sole witness to it all.” As Pak looks out upon a city she has made her own, she makes a final decision that it, and all she has endured, will be the fuel for both her physical life and her life as an author. From this epiphany “came a vision that I would write someday, and this premonition dispelled my fear … The clustered, vacant houses were now my prey. … I already planned to steal from those houses.” (248)
Who Ate Up All the Shinga is also a touching tale of family loyalty – the story of a remarkable woman shepherding her family through difficult times. Park’s mother is the most remarkable character in the book and this is both because of and despite how she is portrayed. She is willful and humble; extravagant and penurious; affectionate and demanding. The narrating Park is often entirely confused by her mother. Readers will be alternately amused and aggravated by the mother’s actions, but she does what she needs to do to survive. Park’s mother is somewhere along that continuum of Korean fictional characters which includes Ch’ae Man-sik’s Master Yun, Chon Kwangyong’s Kapitan Ri, and Seo Giwon’s Ma Rok characters; navigators of uncertain systems. The mother is neatly caught between onrushing modernization – she is certain that she wants Park to grow up to be a “modern woman’ – and traditional cultural strictures based around gender and family ancestry roles. Some of the funniest scenes in the book feature Park’s mother as she uses the disparity between these two forces in her ongoing efforts to rise in society (whatever society might be nearby!). Park sums this up beautifully in a passage describing the families’ return to the countryside:
It was important to Mother not to look like we were returning because we
couldn’t make a go of it in Seoul Her attitude was perfectly understandable
given the difficulties she’d gone through to establish herself. She must have
wanted an appropriate excuse if we couldn’t manage a glorious, silk-clad
In the end, as Park makes her declaration of authorial intent, a reader sees that the mother was, after all, successful despite the family enduring substantial trauma and heartbreak.
Who Ate Up All the Shinga is an excellent translation choice because it conforms to multiple levels of understanding of Korean history, literature, and culture. It can be read for already noted the mother-daughter story, or the evolving writer story, but it can also be read as an introduction, in a most elegant and subtle way, to pundhan munhak and all sorts of political, social and economic themes. Without the overt violence and in-your-face political themes of much of Korean modern literature (e.g. Land of the Banished), Park’s work allows the political story to infuse the narrative, or to serve as explanation. This allows the story, first and foremost, to shine through and the reader can appreciate the “K
oreaness” of the story as his or her knowledge allows. Park’s indirect political strategy means that a reader who knows about the Korean War can feel it’s inevitable approach and understand its meaning in that context, while a newcomer to Korean history can feel the same ominous approach, but understand it within the narrower context of the family. Who Ate Up All the Shinga (as well as the recently translated Toy City) is a novel that can be read completely on its own merits. Certainly it includes incidents and broad historical realities of the era, but these really only occur when they are coincident with the plot. History is not, as it so often is in translated modern Korean literature, the plot itself, rather it is a backdrop against which a far more personal plot develops. To go back to Park’s personal development in this story – it is primarily internal, despite all the rigors of the time, and this gives the character of Park a type of human agency that is often missing from Korean modern literature. Discussing some of Park’s previous work, Stephen J. Epstein (the co-translator here) notes, “[Pak’s] texts, though centered within domestic spaces, reach out to comment on larger social issues, but in such a way as to make the most meaningful aspect of the public sphere its impact upon private lives.” This is in some contradistinction to more conventional modern Korean narratives (particularly when they are situated in this time), which more often give us characters who are nearly passive, or reactive to the events of the larger political sphere.
Park’s writing is literary and clever. Her narrator’s semi-displaced and confessional style allows her to describe the cruelest hardships in an off-hand way that, peculiarly, makes the hardships seem all the more real: They are not part of drama, rather they are part of life. Park also has a way of linking long themes throughout the book with clever anecdotes. There are extended meditations on image and honesty, sprinkled through the book, and an aware reader will see them come to conclusion in the final passages of the last chapter.
The translation, by Yu Young-nan and Stephen J. Epstein is fluid and vernacular. This is the second translation I’ve read this month in which the translation was, to my mind perfect, and that is heartening. One final point, although it may seem a trifle. Who Ate Up the Shinga also has one of the most attractive covers I have seen on recent translations and that suggests to me that more thought is being put into the marketing of translations, which can only be a good thing.
Who Ate Up All the Shinga is a great read, on multiple levels, and will fit well on the bookshelf of a dedicated fan of Korean fiction and just as well on the bookshelf of the casual reader of general fiction.