Review of Kim Won-il’s (김원일) Soul of Darkness (어둠의 혼)

Soul of Darkness CoverSoul of Darkness (어둠의 혼), other than REALLY tempting me to make some kind of horrible pun that might end up as a blog name, is a brief, ugly, but completely transparent snapshot of what happens when starvation and politics intersect. In that way, it is also a snapshot of a particular time in Korean history. The work is by Kim Won-il (김원일) who also wrote the completely brilliant Evening Glow and whose Wikipedia page, predictably, KTLIT created.

The story is of a young boy in a family of five, including two sisters, one of whom is severely handicapped, attempting to live in a world askew politically and economically.  To Gap-hae, our young narrator, is suspended in an economic situation that can’t feed him and a political situation that requires the death of his father.

Questions of politics are generally too abstract for Gap-hae to understand; he is more interested in staving off the very present threat of starvation. But the story begins with politics. Gap-hae’s father, a ‘red’ of some stripe, has been arrested and is thus doomed to die.  Seoul of Darkness oscillates between Gap-hae deciding that issues of the adult world (politics) are unimportant in the face of hunger and his relentless intellectual desire to understand how his father ended up in the position that will kill him. Of course, the story also reveals the extent to which the father’s political misfortune has lead to the son’s hunger.

Soul of Darkness contains an interesting and ongoing theme of questions – what questions can be answered and the number of questions for which there is none. This is tied to Gap-hae’s education as well as the political situation in which his father finds himself. In a short version, this story makes the “which came first, the chicken or the egg,” a pivot point for understanding (or not) the entire world. Kim Won-il is both an obvious and subtle writer, and the mixes the two with substantial art in this work.

An interesting point about this is the narrator as a child is a common trope in fiction of this era. The critical commentary (something I will be talking about at length a bit later, with respect to this entire series) at the end of the book notes that many of the authors of these works were children at the time of the events they now report, but I feel that is an oversimplification of their abilities and that they have also chosen children because they function as impartial (i.e. pre-ideological) and innocent narrators. YMMV.

Also, as I read it, I had the sneaky feeling that I have read it elsewhere in a collection, but I can’t remember where that may have been. Perhaps a reader can enlighten me?

Anyway, it’s volume number 2 of the Bilingual Edition Modern Korean Literature by Asia Publishers, and like all books in the series, is bilingual, with biographical information on the author and critical response appended at the back. 6,000 won or $7.00 it’s relatively inexpensive, but it should also be noted it is quite short (84 pages including both the English and Korean text).