Review: A Distant and Beautiful Place by Yang Kwija

A Distant and Beautiful Place - bookcoverA Distant and Beautiful Place is a stunning and well-translated collection of short stories from Yang Kwija. Like Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf (and similar on more than just this one ground) A Strange and Beautiful Place is a yŏnjak sosŏl, or an intentionally connected series of short stories gathered together in a collection. These works were originally published in literary journals from 1985 to 1987 when they were published in Korean under the rather less interesting name 원미동 사람둘 (People of Wonmi-dong).

This work is full of clever descriptions, well-marked social observations, perhaps a surfeit of imagery, and a way of crystallizing larger social issues in miniature scenes and stories. There is also great detail and versimilitude in the shifting gossip and allegiances of the “villagers” and even a reader unfamiliar with Korea will easily absorb a great deal of information about modern Korean culture while reading this novel/collection. Yang Gui-ja (as she prefers it) has also had the novel Contradictions translated into English as well as a volume in the KLTI/Jimoondang Portable Library of Korean Fiction collection, titled Rust.

Situated south of Seoul, in Bucheon, Wonmi-dong is in the shadows of Wonmi Mountain, and here Koreans who can’t quite make it in Seoul struggle, mostly without notable success, to create lives for themselves and their family.

The first story in the collection the eponymous A Distant and Beautiful Place lays out the terrain we will follow, that which leads slightly down. It is the story of a family moving due to economic necessity and the small “chipping” price it extracts from the family members. It features a moving scene that is slightly reminiscent of the moving south scene in Who Ate Up All the Shinga?. The story end hopefully and also ominously, with the family safely in place in their new home, but watched by an unknown observer who adds an air of creepiness to the conclusion of the story.

The Spark is told in internal monologues, fragments of memories, and quick precise descriptions of people observed, neighborhoods, even passing cars. In this story Yang stitches together a precisely described quilt of failure. As in all the stories here forces larger than the narrators inevitably push them, with a cold, quite economic stealth and inevitability into an abyss. The narrator’s son Chinman dreams of being Superman and the father vaguely hopes it is true, even though it generally results in Chinman hurting himself, others, or things. In some ways, Chinman’s dream of flight is similar to the dream of Cho Se-hui’s dwarf, and likely as doomed. The narrator is selling shoddy cultural ripoffs in advance of the 88 Olympics and just can’t start his sales-pitch, choking on its very words. Finally he does make a sale to a poor porter… after getting the speech right. The story end on this ambiguously happy (the narrator loathes sales) and we will hear more about the outcome of this in later stories.

In The Last Land, atavism Kang Monsong keeps his land and farms on the road to City Hall. Pak, the realtor wants him to sell it, as does the entire neighborhood because it brings down property values and Kang fertilizes it with night soil. Kang is actually one of the more successful residents of Wonmi-dong as he still owns a lot of land and property, but he is lumbered with perfectly useless sons who he realizes would shortly siphon any free money away from him. In this story it is also revealed that Chinman’s dad is no longer a salesman, but now works in a boiler shop.This is an arc that will be completed, in an aside, in a later story.

The Wonmi-Dong Poet is a particularly clever story, which forwards the narrative by providing a couple of character sketches and revealing the limits of loyalty. The story is narrated by a young girl, the self-confessed neighborhood knowitall. The narrator switches (as children do) between spectacularly self centered – she originally wants her sister to marry Captain Kim so she can eat bonbons – to actually knowing it all, both through observation and a keen sense of analysis. Yang does a nice job balancing the voice of the perfect know it all with the voice of a child who doesn’t fully understand adult goings on.

A Vagabond Mouse goes back and forth between the village men talking about “that man” who went to the hills and “that man” narrating his feelings about the hills, how they developed, and his hatred for the city. Clearly, the vagabond wants to escape from society, even a simple beehive freaks him out with its representation of social order, but it is unclear that he can. The town more or less declares him dead, and by the end he is just another expat (calling on another classic Korean literary trope) crying because he is alone.

On Rainy Days I have to Go to Karing-dong returns us to the original family. In the meantime they’ve had the daughter that mom was carrying in the first story. The house, that beautiful goal, has turned out to be a money trap and it is the bathroom that is one of the major offenders. The father has turned into an elitis prick who thoroughly distrusts his workingman neighbor, and the family feels exiled (that theme again( from Seoul. The workingman, on the other hand, is pissed off that a rich man has stiffed him for charcoal deliveries, and in general the story demonstrates the new cracks in social solidarity that development has brought.

Bellfinch begins with a great image as the narrator, on the way into the Seoul Zoo (I should note that I love reading stories located in places I’ve visited^^), passes the “lost children” pen that holds children who have become separated from their parents. The image is hammered in, perhaps too obviously, in the prison-cage zoo image that follows, but it also represents the overarching idea of the story. The importance of the actual Bellfinch is revealed in the aviary where the visitors see a bellfinch that is not singing and the mom/narrator has the recognition that a non-singing bellfinch is not actually a bellfinch. Ironically as they leave the zoo, thedaughter keeps singing a bellfinch song, and levels of irony pile up.

The Tearoom Woman is the sad story of a man cavorting with a tea woman who has just moved into the neighborhood and of how he abandons her when they are discovered. The woman herself is one of the stronger characters in the novel, and reader sympathy will likely be with her in her struggle. The end of the story is an amusing symbolic moment in which the sign advertising the man’s photo shop, the “happiness” photo shop, has the “I” blow away. This is a super translation job as the original Korean was in fact “행복” (“happiness) which is then reduced to “행보” (walking) with its implication of aloneness and lack of a place to be. In this case the translation may actually have strengthened the original point and using the very Western pronoun “I” also sharpens that point.

By the next story, Our Daily Bread, the tearoom woman has been driven out of town by the scandal of the previous story and Captain Kim’s store is threatened by a yont’an and rice store that gets into groceries. In one of those asides in which Yang keeps the bigger picture in focus, it is also revealed that as we have been reading the previous stories, Chinman’s father has been reduced to selling toilet paper from a cart and then eventually forced out of Wolmi-dong. Our Daily Bread is an alternately amusing and unfortunate story of commercial competition in the smallest of markets.

The Underground Man is a highly praised, but ultimately a bit obvious, story of a man who has, almost literally, been driven away from the sun. Perhaps worse, he has also been driven to having to defecate in the street like a dog – an act which, in an amusing bit of social commentary, Yang reveals is blamed on his lack of social standards, when in fact it is society that has driven him to that state.

The novel/collection ends with Cold Water Pass, which is a bit jarring as it introduces a new character, a writer, who is clearly in, but not of the Wolmi-dong neighborhood. The writer’s issues, also, seem relatively insignificant and entirely unrelated to the ‘distant and beautiful place’ to which Yang has just introduced us. Still, a really great work, easy to read both due to its episodicity and its easy and attractive narrative style.

HOW MANY BUCKWHEAT BLOSSOMS? Only one Buckwheat Blossom – these stories have plenty of Korea-specific content, but it is always tucked neatly into a story with general appeal and high levels of readability.

NOT SO VERY STORYENTALIZED credit for an awesome cover.^^