Kim Won-Il’s Evening Glow, translated by Agnita Tennant (who just also translated three volumes of Park Kyung-ni’s Land), is the story of a businessman, Kim Kapsu, returning to his countryside home for a funeral and re-connecting with and re-assessing the complicated strands of his previous life, one lived in the turbulent period of Korean civil war.
Kapsu is the son of a butcher (a problematic social status at that time, something akin to being an untouchable in the Indian caste system) who becomes a strong North Korean partisan and leads a local, and doomed, rebellion against the post-war status in his village. Kapsu is a sickly and clever lad; half the story is told from his vantage point as a child, and the other half told from his adult perspective as a successful businessman.
This is a useful narrative structure for a non-native reader, as the modern timeline gives a frame of reference for a reader who is not well aware of the political situation that partially determines the narrative of the flash-backs. Like Kim In-sook’s The Long Road this is an extremely tightly structured book, and that structure makes its sometimes complicated plot(s) easier to comprehend.
As the title suggests, the story begins and ends with two sunsets (“evening glow”), although sunsets that are described entirely differently. The first sunset is blood-red, emblematic of the blood that flows freely in this novel, and undifferentiated:
The color of dry blood, the evening glow picked up the end of the thread of flickering memories. (3)
The final sunset is much more complicated:
You could not say the sunset was simply red. Close examination would reveal an exquisite mixture of colours, but people say an evening glow is red. Dark yellow, pale blue, even gray were mixed with it. Was it because people liked to lump things together that they called it “red?” (258)
This symbolic change, of course, is meant to represent a change in Kapsu’s understanding of his own history and how it impacts his present; a message, obviously, that Kim intends/hopes to apply to the greater Korean society.
Kim does himself and the reader a great service by rarely actually showing violence, rather having it occur off-stage. Kapsu’s father is presented as a brute of a man in his family and interpersonal relationships and yet Kim delicately outlines the structure of the family loyalties that tenuously survive the butcher’s immolation of his family and attempted immolation of his community. Very little is portrayed in black and white in this novel and that’s a testament to Kim’s writing and Tennant’s translation.
The butcher, both because of his doubly low social status (peasant and butcher) and his rage, is deeply involved in a partisan plot to take over the village and punish landowners and other bourgeoisie. We watch, through Kapsu’s eyes, as the plot unfolds, is temporarily successful, and then unravels completely. During the course of this plot arc, the father is revealed to be a butcher in pretty much all senses of the word.
A sub-plot deals with Kapsu’s tangled relationship with Pae Josu, one of the original village partisans, and through this plot Kim deftly shows how complicated personal and political relationships can become in times of civil trauma.
Other sub-plots and themes loop in and out of the story, coming and going with a quiet deftness. Kim handles these threads neatly and they often tie together in unexpected but pleasant (from a technical standpoint) ways. Several times during the concluding chapters of the novel I found myself involuntarily nodding my head and thinking, “aha, that’s why!…..” a certain character had said or done something in preceding chapters.
The translation is quite good, with occasional oddities that jar slightly. “Loose” is occasionally used for “lose.” There are some UK vocabulary choices that are a bit eccentric: “Berk” for instance relies on a Cockney rhyme that several friends from the UK couldn’t explain and “skive” is a weird way (to US ears) to say avoid responsibility. The phrase “as they say” is repetitively used, unfortunately both to indicate someone who is wisely reciting Chinese maxims and also to indicate someone reciting simple folk sayings – for me, this meant I had to stop at each usage and figure out if wisdom was being imparted, or thoughtless memes were being passed along. Still, half of this complaint is based on the fact I’m from the US^^ and in general the translation is literate and free-flowing.
This is a moving story, clearly translated and although it is kind of a pundan munhak piece, it is also a story about family, friends, relationships, healed wounds, forgiveness and the way life conspires to entangle us all.
------------------------- purely subjective things
YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN WARNING! For the occasional odd translation choices and ridiculous cover price ($25!!) – Dear Academic Presses, cut out the insane prices if you want anyone to read your books!
HOW MANY BUCKWHEAT BLOSSOMS? Only one Buckwheat Blossom – While the flashback sections are full of deep-culture that historians of the period will enjoy, Kim does a brilliant job giving them ‘in the moment” meaning that carries the story.