Review, “Christmas Specials” (성탄특선) by Kim Ae-ran (김애란)


NOTE: This is an X-mas “re-release” originally published on November 21, and go ahead and follow KTLIT on twitter here.Kim Ae-ran Christmas Specials

Christmas Specials, by Kim Ae-ran (translated by Jamie Chang) covers some of the same conceptual territory as Guide to Seoul Cave (here a PDF file) by Kim Mi-wol – the limited spaces – conceptual, psychological, and physical – in which the economically limited are forced to lived. Ae-ran begins with a lyrical scene of a man in a snowstorm, but quickly turns to themes of fecundity and space (sperm and “Inns”) as it is revealed that he still lives with his sister. This evening, however is Christmas Eve and, a packet of ramen under his arm, he contemplates going back home and having the room they share to himself. It will be the first time he has really had a room to himself since he had a rooftop room (for those who have not been to Korea, these are shabby little rooms tacked onto the top, flat, floor of buildings, and are brutally subject to the heat of summer, and cold of winter).

The scene then cuts to the sister and her boyfriend as they try to find a “room of their own” on Christmas Eve, so they can have some romantic time together. As part of the 880,000 won generation (so-called because this was the average wage, a wage that comes perilously close to the poverty line in Korea), even something as simple as a date at a movie can cause substantial economic damage, and they have set this night aside as one on which to just go out and have fun, carve out their own space, and do what they want to do, not what economics might suggest.

They are going to get their “perfect Christmas.” Much of this comes down to that question of space, of the “room” (here, perhaps a literary historian can hear an echo down time of what has become of Choi In-hun’s Plaza/Closet conundrum), and they set off to find it.

There is a funny (if not also sad) scene of them having a dinner of western food because they “should”, when they would both really have preferred budaejiggae, and the search continues. In the background, the snow becomes dirty and bags of garbage pile up.

The story alternates between the brother with his modern toys of separation (Computer, boring pornography) and the couple’s search for a romantic room. It comes to a room-based conclusion, but one that the reader will need to discover themselves.

Christmas Specials is a good novella on several grounds: It does a nice job of describing, for those of us who are lucky enough not to have to worry about it, the emotional cost of “near-poverty” in a rich country; it is reminiscent of several western stories in which the lack of physical space is reason for, and symbol of, lack of psychological space: and, in terms of its descriptions of love (a major theme this review has not addressed), it makes clear that love might be able to “make” space, but it also needs space to be created in.

This is a brief and precise introduction to the particular problems of one generation of Korean young adults, and among the Bilingual Edition of Modern Korean Literature, stands out as particularly modern for Korea, and as a warning for other countries on the verge of reaping the wages of “success” in a globalized world.