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.
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.