NOTE: This book is currently only available for pre-order.
Kim Won-il’s House With a Sunken Courtyard nearly redefines the genre of translated pundan munhak (separation literature) family fiction in Korea (LOL.. which is a lot of words to describe a ‘genre’). I hope, as I read my way through the galley’s of the Dalkey Archive Press collection, that this is evidence that Dalkey is planning to raise the bar on, if not redefine, Korean literature in translation.
Previously, works such as Lee Dong-ha’s Toy City, O Chong-hui’s Chinatown, Cho Se-hui’s A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball, and even Kim Won-il’s own Evening Glow, have featured youthful, even child narrators. On these works, however, the overall focus has been on the tragedy, horror, and hopelessness of life (with Evening Glow being and Park Wan-suh’s Who Ate Up All the Shinga? being partial exceptions), which can make the works slogging work for English-language readers. And while House With a Sunken Courtyard does not shy away from tragedy and horror, it also never succumbs to hopelessness, instead featuring a kind of strong inter-familial and intra-familial bonding that represents one of the strengths of Korean and Korean society in the face of adversity.
The story begins in 1954, with a boy named Gilnam on a train to Daegu, and ends up with a chubby middle-class Gilnam many decades later. Courtyard begins with a quick history of the family and deliniation of the families who share the house. We are introduced to Gilnam, a sister (Seonrye), a brother (Giljung) and a handicapped brother (Gilsu). The biggest handicap the family has, however, is that the father ran off to the North, and the family must now fend for itself.
Four families live in the courtyard house, along with the landlords in separate quarters, and they must all try to get along and live, with different histories, politics, and social levels as the general economic conditions loom above them, and the threat of eviction also looms.
With all of that drama the strength, unity, and perseverance of the families largely holds them together, and even outside the house, friendship and support is possible. This is where Courtyard diverges from previous translations of this kind of story, which have generally focused on the untrustworthiness, even evil, of the outside world and ‘other’ people. Thus, even though many horrible things happen in this book, the core of the book is about human trust and resiliency.
Even though at one point Gilnam thinks:
I discovered too early how selfish human beings are, and that the race for survival is a rat race indeed. If I were to become the pillar of my family, it would be necessary for me to step on others. For that, honesty and diligence wouldn’t be enough. It would also require ability, physical strength, and hard work, and in addition to them greed, cunning, and skill with words as well. 140-1
He really never gives in to this idea and no matter what tragedies befall the family and there friends (and, again, Kim does not stint on tragedy) Gilnam, supported by his family and friends, perseveres.
The story is full of delicate details and the ties that bind the present to the past. Gilnam and his family, as when, from his perspective many years later, Gilnam explains how the hunger of his youth has affected him as an adult:
Even today, I yearn to eat breakfast the minute I wake up in the morning. When I finish breakfast, I decide on what I’ll have for lunch. After lunch, I imagine the delicacies I would like to eat for dinner. That is one of the most important “matters” of my life, and an indispensable joy. 64
At the end, the physical bonds of the Courtyard House are broken by redevelopment, but the bonds of affection and relationship are not sundered, and Gilnam makes a point of returning to Daegu to determine the fate of the many people who met while living there. Some have had bad experiences, some good; some have separated themselves from each other and some have married; and, some have moved to Seoul, some gone overseas.
But, as the book concludes, Gilnam is still somehow related to them all, and somehow, across time and geography, still cares for them.
It is this overall attitude, almost a defiance of han, which makes this book a brilliant starting point for readers interested in Korean historical family fiction. Kim Won-il weaves a complicated and occasionally harrowing story that still manages to be human and compelling.
This series by Dalkey, as well as the Asia Publishers series of shorter fiction, promises to rewrite the list of “required” reading of Korean literature in translation. LOL.. I couldn’t be any more pleased.^^