There are two different versions of this book, Trees on a Slope, translated by Bruce Fulton, and Trees on the Cliff, translated by Chang Wang-rok. I read the latter version, partly because I believe its translated title is more reflective of the story told here, even if it is a bit less literal (Literally, Trees Standing on a Slope). The cost of that choice is a smattering of mis-spellings that have crept into the translation and a non-standard spelling of the author’s name (Whang Sun-won). The additional bonus is that Trees on the Cliff includes two other stories, the ubiquitous, Sonagi (“Shower”) and the clever, The Night He Came Late.
KTLIT has previously reviewed a recent collection of Hwang’s work, Lost Souls , and his Jimoondang book, A Man and I am hard at work on his Moving Castles and Descendants of Cain, both of which should be reviewed here soon.
Hwang is one of Korea’s most ‘literary’ writers, in fact, as I have worked my way through his longer works I have occasionally described them as Dickensian in the way in which they pile character on character, plot on plot, and then painstakingly explore the nooks and crannies of the those characters and plots. Trees on the Cliff is not different, even though its main focus is on three veterans of the Korean War.
As he often does, Hwang explores questions of religious belief, sexual relationships, and how the structure of society deforms its citizens. Also running through this, and most of Hwang’s works, is a version of han; an acceptance that the world is callous place, and the best we can do is struggle along. This thread in Hwang’s work is well expressed in a quote in the preface here, “Afer all is said, life is already tragic. Why should we make it worse?”
The story begins as the Korean War winds down and the sensitive Dongho, experienced and cynical Hyontae, and the practical and hard-working Yongu engage in one last set of military actions and return (with one shocking exception) to civilian life. These three interact with a wide-range of characters including Dongho’s tragic girlfriend Sugi, the affectless kisaeng Kyehyang, the drunken seargent Sonu, who’s conversion to Catholicism cannot save him, and a host of other well-drawn supporting characters.
The characters twine and intertwine, and Hwang’s plotting is impeccable and relentless. Hwang is a master of symbolism, as the title alone would indicate, and perhaps the key symbols used in this work are the concept of pruning and the idea of the egg, and how it is created. Reader who keep an eye out for instances of those two symbols will be amply rewarded as the story unfolds.
It is tempting to search for allegory in the different fates of the friends. Certainly the hard work of Yun-gu is the characteristic to which Korea would look to drive her future success, while the fate of Hyon-tae indicates that family wealth (perhaps earned at the cost of collaboration with the Japanese oppressors) is of no use without a modicum of application and direction. Perhaps Tong-ho’s fate shows that the age of innocence is now rudely finished – or perhaps is meant to show that well-meaning efforts to educate someone too soon can end in disaster.
But it is also a fine work just as storytelling.
The first short story in the collection is Sonagi, about which I have inveighed enough – it is a trifle of a story, unbelievably beloved by middle school teachers of Korean literature, but I found it too saccharine and slight. The final short story is The Night He Came Late, an interesting story of a man whose wife forces him out of the house each day, with a bit of money, and the ways he wastes that money. In a strange way, this reminded me a bit of Yi Sang’s Wings, in its story of a husband and an (apparently) prostitute wife. At the end a bit of his past is revealed, and it sheds a little more ironic light on his current condition.