Review of Hwang Soon-won’s “A Man”

"A Man" named Hwang

Hwang Soon-won’s A Man is the 23rd book in the Jimoondang series, and it seems as though the editors were running out of things to translate (despite the fact that there is plenty still out there). It’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast, with three entirely unrelated short stories tossed together. The stories themselves are loosely plotted and seem more like vignettes tossed together than a narrative.

The first story is, to use vernacular language to describe a literary feeling, super weird. The Dog of Crossover Village is told from at least three narrative positions and covers the relatively unremarkable life of a stray dog called ‘Whitey.’ The dustcover says The Dog of Crossover Village, “portrays life in a traditional rural village but can be read as an allegory of the Japanese colonial occupation or of the fate of an outsider in a highly stratified society.” Neither of those allegorical approaches seem likely (Whitey hardly seems colonized or colonialist and she actually fits her way into the local society of dogs) and that the editor would feel it necessary to toss out these unlikely and to some extent in opposition, allegories seems to hint that he/she was uncertain what to make of the story.

The story that gives the book its title, A Man, is even more bizarre. The sexual politics are inexplicable – very nearly random – but always, here comes that word again, weird. Mr. Kim (“the man” of the title) is completely helpless with respect to women. This is partly because in his first marriage his insanely controlling mother sleeps between him and his bride, then blames the bride when she returns home, a decision which seems sensible enough to my eyes. As the mother dies she leaves a last request that paints the oddity of her relationship to her son, “I’ve known only two men in my life – your father and you. And I don’t want you trusting any woman but your mom.” With echoes of Tony Perkin’s mother from Psycho ringing in his ears Mr. Kim goes from unsatisfying relationship to unsatisfying relationship. The dustcover describes Mr. Kim as hapless, but it obviously goes beyond that. The particular relationships he enters are strung together like a child might string beads – loosely and without apparent logic and the concluding scene doesn’t seem to wrap much up.

A Book Called "A Man"

The third story, Bibari, is also a bit off. It is also the easiest to read, because there is a plot to follow and it is interesting where it points out differences between Jeju and the body of Korea. Those differences have been at the heart of a great deal of trauma on Jeju, and Hwang does a good job of portraying them, even in small ways such as parallel vocabularies (The title, for instance, comes from the Jeju word that would be “agassi” in the rest of Korea). Bibari‘s plot revolves around a love story and a fratricide. The fratricide is relatively emotionally convincing in that the murderer explains the mercy she believes she did by the murder, but the love-affair killing result of the murder seems contrived and without real emotional heft. It seems as if Hwang just tossed a couple of plot ideas together without entirely working out how they would mesh.

The dust cover (again!) says that, “Hwang Soon-won is modern Korea’s most successful short-story writer and perhaps its most consistently interesting fictional voice.” It is difficult to see that judgment drawn from this collection of short stories. Hwang also wrote the seminal Cranes (a short story) and Descendants of Cain (a horrific novel), either of which would be better introductions to his writing. Even Sonagi, which I found a bit predictable and pathos-drenched, would be better. I also have his collection of short stories “Book of Masks” which I hope to read and review shortly.

This book, however, is not the one to buy.

6 thoughts on “Review of Hwang Soon-won’s “A Man”

  1. This book, however, is not the one to buy.

    Now you tell me! Actually, I liked the first story quite well, which I took to be an allegory about the writer in his society. I didn’t think much of the other two, mainly because of the sexual politics and the fact both protagonists are inexplicable losers.

    But I found the translation to be well-written, and I think the style, “tinged with lyricism” as I put it in my review, allows the reader to use his intelligence, doesn’t beat you over the head with symbolism as sometimes happens in Korean lit.

  2. LOL.. Tuttle.. I’m just saying he’s not only been pretty prolific, but pretty prolifically translated…. this stuff just did not intrigue me…

  3. Charles,

    Sorry to hear that Hwang didn’t do it for you. I think that at his best he is, hands down, Korea’s finest writer. It’s been a good fifteen or twenty years since I read A Man or Bibari, but my recollection of the former in particular is that it was a very powerful and disturbing story, told in a spare, understated, subtle style. As the other reviewer you cited suggests Hwang has a knack for drawing out a telling and subtle detail and leaving it up to the reader for interpretation. I really recommend the collections Book of Masks and Shadows of a Sound, both edited by Martin Holman. I don’t think Hwang’s novels are as strong because the intricacy of what he is trying to achieve is hard to over a couple hundred pages of text, but he truly excels at the short story.

    And there is much more going on in Sonagi, I think, than meets the eye. A shame that the story became a middle school staple because it has colored perceptions of the story as something very straightforward and simple (there is pretty clearly a symbolic loss of virginity that takes place in the story, but don’t even try to go there with readers who remember it as a straightforward “sunsuhan” tale of puppy love….).

  4. A couple of things …

    1) In retrospect I was so bummed out by the first two stories in this collection that I was too hard on “Bibari.”

    2) I’d like to make clear that when I said “Descendants of Cain” was “horrific,” I meant the semi-historical tale it tells. I like the book, though I would NEVER have chosen it for translation into English, as it seems intentionally devised to scare off western readers. YMMV

    3) No matter how subtle “Sonagi” may be, no matter how many lost maidenheads it artfully conceals, it is at heart the Korean equivalent of “Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry.” I liked Kim Yong-ik’s “Love in Winter” for a different version of the same story, far more artfully told.

    4) Haerim says something I find quite interesting, certainly true, and to me damning: “As the other reviewer you cited suggests Hwang has a knack for drawing out a telling and subtle detail and leaving it up to the reader for interpretation.” To me this is NOT what you translate into English for a variety of reasons. I am currently teaching a graduate class I made up called “Created in Translation – in this class one of the things I argue is that translating works that are excessively subtle is not the route to get your Target Culture interested. If it is subtle in native language, the chances it will be impenetrable in the target language increase greatly. I should note, my idea of success is when Korea will have, as Japan currently does, stock characters built into the mind of the English-language reader (e.g. Samurai, Geisha, Kamikaze Pilot). I am, after all, a greasy-pole climbing marketing dude. ^^

    5) I have had “Book of Masks” on my desk to read for nearly 6 months, and will get to it next. I thought “Cranes” was an excellent and evocative story (not too subtle for my linear Occidental brain to get) and your recommendation tips the scale. 😉

    6) The “allegory” that Tuttle proposes is probably there – I often read too literally. Still, I’m not sure what I’m to make of it other than the commonplace, and common to all places, recognition that journalists and writers are pretty much like scavengers.
    I keed!

  5. Re 3) Actually, I still think the story is a lot more complex than that. Someday in person I’ll run through it all with you. I once had to defend my position in great detail on soc.culture.korean back in the early days of Usenet. Sonagi is far from Hwang’s best, but it’s a better tale than many give him credit for. I still maintain that its inclusion in middle school textbooks has had a determining and negative effect on its reception. A key thing to realize is that it was written when he was living as a refugee in Pusan during the war. That same month, if I remember right, he wrote two other stories that dealt with the untimely loss of innocence that his own children were experiencing (one of them “The Whip” is in Shadows of a Sound; it’s a great tale). I think Sonagi is a very dark story and about something much deeper than “Love means…”.

    4) Well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that and what counts as excessively subtle. He’s subtle and literary and doesn’t spell everything out for his reader, but my preference runs to authors who know to handle ambiguity and who paint the world in shades of gray Hwang does it masterfully, IMHO, and his stories repay very careful reading and rereading–it’s like peeling away the layers of an onion. Re marketing: In 2010 Korean literature may be (or can afford to be) looking for a breakout author like Kim Young-ha, but in the 1980s/1990s, translation was much more about getting Korea’s finest literary talents out into the world. Let me also add that I think that Hwang is one of the writers of his generation who was most able to hit upon universal themes; you don’t really need to be Korean to appreciate what is happening in his work, which is not always as true of his contemporaries.

    5) Will be interested to know what you think. Let me know what you make of the title story–it’s only a couple of pages long, but packs a lot of brilliance into those couple of pages.

  6. Pingback: The Compleat Portable Library of Korean Fiction: A LTI Korea / Jimoondang Publishing Publication

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