Review – Early Spring, Mid-Summer

Early Spring, Mid-Summer Book Cover

Note: The slipcover is NOT on the actual item.^^

Early Spring, Midsummer, may be the best book out of the Si-sa-yongo-sa Modern Korean Short Stories 10 book series. It contains couple of meditations on change, particularly Early Spring, Mid-Summer by Yi Munyol, a couple of historical/metaphorical tales of the cost of war, including Kim Won-il’s The Spirit of Darkness,  and a couple of stories that mix their historical stories with great and sometimes shocking sadness, particularly, Pak Si-jong’s Two Minutes to Seven.

The first of the historical/metaphorical stores is The Spirit of the Darkness by Kim Won-il is the story of a young boy in the time just before the Korean war. The narrator’s father is a Red, and lives in hiding. When the father is finally caught, it sends the boy on a journey about his village and in his mind in which he remembers flashes of time with his father, lashes out at his father for leaving the family, and oftentimes, is just plain hungry. The story has a sad ending, but is an excellent introduction to the collection and there’s some well placed explicitation in the story to help any readers unfamiliar with Korea at the time.

Wings That Will Carry Us Both by Chon San-guk is the story of a lucky second birth in the family with a ‘seventh-generation-only-son.’  And, yet, this luck, as a Korean philosophical tradition suggests, leads not only to happiness, but also to anxiety and dread. In fact, in describing this mixed feeling, Son Sang-guk may have created the best and briefest literary introduction to the Korean notion of ‘han.’ Wings That Will Carry Us Both features one of the few ‘happy’ endings (although ambivalently so) in the collection, which can be read as a metaphor for the state of the “brother” countries of South and North Korea, or as the story of brotherly bonding.

The Cave by Han Sung-won is perhaps the most difficult story in this collection to suss out, and it ends fairly abruptly and randomly. A little research indicates that the story is actually an excerpt from “Father and Son: A Novel,” which likely explains its appearing incomplete. In addition, the story literally translates Korean terms for relatives (i.e. an older uncle on a father’s side is called “Bigger Father”), which is pretty non-explanatory for readers not already well aware of Korean culture.   The story is of two children “saved” by their father, who dooms himself in the process, and the unhappy lives they subsequently lead.

The cave, the house of drunken Chu-man and his supportive mother is clearly metaphorical, perhaps standing directly for war-time massacre (There were several awful cave-based massacres in modern Korean history, including the  Goyang Geumjeong Cave Massacre or the Daranshi cave massacre on Jeju, and the Gok-Gye Cave Massacre)

There is some fairly clever writing involved as when the narrator’s father is confronted by the reds who claim him bourgeois. He responds with a logical argument and general claim that he hasn’t done anything wrong, to which the red semi-official responds, , and claims he hasn’t done anything. The red semi-official responds, “Nobody surrenders because he has done anything” (77)

Even with that, however, this story made me wish I had the more complete version.

Two stories in the collection are short tragedies.

D.M.Z. by Yu Hyon-jong is the story of a charming little boy with a desire to travel. He picks up a stray cat and accidentally crosses under and over the DMZ by digging a hole, when he spots a deer on the other side of a fence. D.M.Z. is a brilliant little story, because even though the boy seems preternaturally lucky, the split in Korea as represented by the DMZ itself will not let him live. Readers familiar with Korean literature might think of it as a juvenile version of Lucky Day by Hyon Jin Gon.

If D.M.Z. is a little bit of a downer, wait for Ten Minutes to Seven, the last story in the collection, which ends it with all the delicacy of a guillotine slamming down on a neck.  Just a brutal story about two women, from very different generations, trying to get a last few minutes with their male relatives who are on a train that will ship them off to Vietnam.

The remaining stories are, loosely, metaphors describing the price of non-war related change in Korea. The Relationship by Yu Chae-yon is an awesome and different story about a man, a sort of idler, gets a job working as the arms and legs of a man paralyzed from the waist down. The idler even marries a wife and has a child for the millionaire. At the end, however, even permanently living in the grand house of the millionaire, the narrator feels empty and alone. A well told story of psychological dispossession that can clearly be read as a comment on the cost of ‘merely’ economic advancement.

The same kind of reading can be applied to The Sound Of The Gong, by Mun Sun-tae. Main character Ho Chil-bok has had his home erased by a dam, so he moves to the city, where he doesn’t fit in and also loses his life. Driven slightly mad, he gets a gong and returns to his old home, now surviving precariously as a fishing destination. Ho’s ‘gonging’ scares the fish and he is chased off by locals who see him as a threat to their livelihood. Strangely, even when he is chased off, he continues to be heard.

Early Spring, Mid-Summer, by Yi Munyol is a collection of short snippets that are meant to be mini-morality-plays, sometimes bordering on lectures, all featuring the character Paek-Po. Paek-po, introduced as the idea of an everyman. The little snippets lay out his life and beliefs in a way that would take much longer in “straight” narrative. The ending reminded me in some ways of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce, except no one dies.^^ It is clever how Yi uses two of Korea’s seasons, perhaps the best and the worst, as symbols.

Early Spring, Mid-Summer is eight excellent short stories. Regular readers of this blog will also know that it is difficult to find and often expensive when it can be found. If you’re interested in it, it can be found online on non-US Amazon sites for much lower prices than on US Amazon. Or, for a few more weeks, you can win a copy of Early Spring, Mid-Summer at the KTLIT/Catch  the Wave Early Spring, Mid-Summer giveaway!

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