Review: Hwang Sun-won’s “The Moving Castle”

The Moving Castle book CoverHwang Sun-won’s The Moving Castle is a brilliant work, which aspires to achieve much, and achieves it. The Moving Castle is literary fiction in the best sense of the phrase. It is Dickensian in scale, attempting to describe an entire society and its interactions, even, with the larger world, and at the same time populating that world with extremely well-drawn characters, each individual and consistent. At the outset, this presents a slight challenge as Hwang dives right into the story, introducing an astonishingly large number of characters in the first few chapters. That these character names are rendered in McCune–Reischauer Romanization, which always makes it more difficult for English-language readers to remember names, adds an additional level of difficulty. But it is more than worth just wading in (or cheating, and keeping a notes-sheet as I did^^) in order to get to the heart of the story.

The story revolves around two couples, although that is a somewhat arbitrary number, as Hwang spins relationship loops within relationship loops. The first couple is two friends, Song-ho and Mingu, whose polarity is based on religion (Catholicism and Shamanism), and the second couple is Chun-tae and his wife Chong-tae, who are in the process of a bloodless separation. Each of these character has additional strong loops. Min-gu meets several shaman, Chong-tae meets Mr. Kang, Chun-tae meets Chi-yon and new relationships are forged and dissolved. The relationships are extremely varied, from marriages, to friendships, and The Moving Castle is one of the few works in translation that I’ve read that forthrightly presents homosexuality as part of life..

Minor characters are important to the story and well drawn, from the sadistic child Kol-I to the scheming shamanist underling who eventually betrays Min-gu. Hwang also portrays an extremely wide range of characters, including a gay shaman, women undergoing abortion, and acts of cowardice, love, and acceptance. Hwang takes these characters, a wide variety of ‘ordinary’ people, and puts them into a landscape that while being completely Korean, is also in some ways timeless and placeless – an effortless match of the particular and the universal.

As in his other works, in The Moving Castle Hwang uses symbols and metaphors cleverly. In this case, at the heart of the work is the ambiguous symbol of the hawk, both as a tool and a predator – in many ways it is similar to the symbol of pruning in Trees on the Cliff. Hwang suggests a powerful plasticity and indeterminacy through this symbol, and it is a plasticity and indeterminacy that is carried out in the novel as a whole.

The Moving Castle ends in a kind of resigned understanding – a protagonist dies, relationships are destroyed and reconstituted in different forms, and all this occurs in the context of a society that is also morphing under constant pressure. The final metaphor, of two children, one dispossessed, sitting in front of a shack with the dispossessed child relentlessly trying to create something from nothing, is a powerful one and, as in most of Hwang’s fiction, can be read more than one way.

The rumor-mill reports that The Moving Castle may shortly be published in a retranslation, and I’m quite looking forward to that publication. Which is to say nothing against the current translation by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton, which is as usual when they are involved, excellent.

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