The Long Road (available here on Amazon and also available on E-bay) by Kim In-suk is one of the few works of translated modern Korean literature that takes place solely in a country other than Korea. While the story takes place in Australia, it is rich with traditional Korean themes of separation and alienation.
The story is of two brothers, Han-yeong and Han-rim, reuniting for a boat trip triggered by their mutual interest in a very unusual Korean, Myeong-U, who has managed to wrangle Political Refugee (PR) status in Australia. Han-yeong is also pondering the results of his recent attempt to re-establish connection with Seo-yeon an ex-lover who he left in Korea seven years ago. These three expats, are of quite different types. Han-rim left Korea under a nearly literal cloud of marijuana smoke and political suspicion. Han-yeong is escaping his own complicity in the failure of his relationship and desires to become a ‘cog’ in something. Myeong-U is a kind of “accidental tourist” who achieved his expat status through a grimly amusing series of intentional accidents.
Together they tear at each other, poking for weak spots and exposing all they have left behind, what they still long for, and re-establishing some senses of community. Though the bulk of the action is on that boat, three family-related subplots are revealed in flashbacks (if anything, the plot is so finely balanced in these triangles that it occasionally seems a bit contrived) that give additional motivation to each character.
It is interesting to compare this book to Choe In-ho’s Deep Blue Night (in fact I will make this comparison in a later post because, to be polite, The Long Road seems strongly based on it), because it covers the same sort of territory – how unrooted Koreans lose meaning and turn on each other and themselves. This is expressed in a subplot featuring Han-rim’s most successful song in Korea, the name of the book, The Long Road, the lyrics of which are:
You’re going far away, don’t say it’s lonely.
You please don’t be scared
You will have everything someday
You’re leaving on a long road,
don’t say you’re lonely,
don’t’ say you’re afraid,
someday you’ll have everything,
the day you want,
in that land.
Han-rim has taught this song to Joseph, the Australian pilot of the boat, but when Joseph sings it Myeong-U freaks out and yells that Han-rim has sold his soul, apparently by translating it into English and teaching it to a ‘foreigner.’
Similarly, Han-yeong gives an interesting description of the alienation that comes with being an expat, even an assimilated one, “Ultimately they were Australians, and he was an immigrant. But that did not explain it adequately. The issues were trivial, almost inexplicable. …. But his desperation was trivial. What if the reasons for his alienation had been more serious? (29-30)
Finally, the book explores the separations between expats, “If your country and my country are different, then where in the world is our country” (90-91).
So, some predictable themes, but told solidly and in an entirely different context from most translated Korean fiction.
The translation here is good, despite the fact that Han-yeong has two different names in the first few pages. The good translation is no surprise as Stephen Epstein has done this kind of translation before, in Who Ate Up All The Shinga? by Park Wan-suh and Contradictions, by Yang Gui-ja.
Worth picking up if you see it, though I’d try and grab it used for $10 (on Amazon) instead of paying nearly $23 for a book that is a bit on the brief side.
------------------------- purely subjective things
YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN WARNING! If you’ve read Deep Blue Night, you’ve really already read this book.
HOW MANY BUCKWHEAT BLOSSOMS? .5 Buckwheat Blossoms, the cultural content in this will be completely understandable to any reader.
NOT SO VERY STORYENTALIZED credit for a decent cover.
RESPECT YOUR ELDERS! Well, points (or not?) again for glossing Deep Blue Night, but also a call out to Cho Se-hui’s “Spinyfish” chapter of The Dwarf.