Review: “Guide to Seoul Cave” by Kim Mi-wol (김미월)

Kim Mi-wol Autographs

Another autograph, captured!

Pre-pro-tips: If you like Guide to Seoul Cave you can purchase Kim Mi-wol’s What is Yet to Happen, a cool (if that’s the word) pre-apocalyptic story here. Also, you can follow KTLIT on twitter @ktlit.

Of course, the title to Kim Mi-wol’s Guide to Seoul Cave (available thanks to Brother Anthony’s hompi) gives away the point she is making, that even in the largest city, the most (allegedly) communal culture, and the common goal of success, each of us lives (particularly her characters) in a cave of some kind. This is literal in the story, as the narrator both lives in a Gosiwon and works in an actual replica of a cave; and it is metaphorical as well, in that each character has fashioned their own personal cave in which they live. Whether that cave is an adaptation to a splintered world, a “private paradise” as the introduction suggests, or a bare-bones refuge from that splintered world, is left up the reader. This story is reminiscent, in many ways, of Kim Ae-ran’s Christmas Special or Eun Hee-Kyung’s My Wife’s Boxes in Unspoken Voices (which chillingly reduces a life into things, including the most important things, that might literally be crated). In this context, Seoul is both the cave, and the cave which contains many smaller ones within it. This is a quite clever conceit, as it is quite difficult to think about Seoul itself as a cave – it is vast, differentiated, and at least physically always changing.

And yet…. everyone is a bat (the unspoken animal – except with respect to guano) of the cave metaphor, and bats live small, tight, and extremely uniform existences (you can check it out on the Wikipedia!)

The story begins in a Gosiwon (a hard to explain, but incredibly puny living situation one can find in Korea) in which our narrator is listening to the sound of sex from the woman in room 204. The narrator works as a guide in a shabby faux-cave that seems to primarily exist for field-trips for children. The narrator has also had some experience in real caves, having once found herself lost in one.

The narrator eventually makes friends with the woman in room 204, finds out that she is a pharmacists assistant, and the narrator tells her a story: A beach story. And yet not a typical beach story – a story in which a mother is found drowned, still holding the empty bathing suit of a child she was trying to save, a child who she thought was her own.

Here, the story treads near territory covered in What Has Yet to Happen, that is, what would happen in different decisions had been made, but Kim, using a metaphor that she introduces at the beginning (and which I won’t spoil, because it completely ties the story up at the end) suggests that no one knows, could know, and in any case, in a big enough ‘cave’ you just ape the behavior of the other bats, or whoever the inhabitants are. Or, maybe, just if you are lucky enough, you find someone who can help you. Kim leaves this intentionally unanswered, although a reader will certainly sense the narrator is being pulled one way with respect to the question of “what one should do.”

Guide to Seoul Cave is an interesting mix of the “separatist” strain of Korean fiction, which merely describes the social dissolution that modernization and globalization have brought to Korea with the historical urge (dating at least to start of the Joseon era) to have relationships, and then how to combine those things with the very different reality, that modern society has “start” and “stop” signs everywhere – ones that lead us to caves, and ones that sometimes protect us.

Finally, I should noet that this is a PDF file and is brought to us through the indefatigable work of Brother Anthony, who translated it.