Our Friend’s Homecoming (돌아온 우리의 친구) by Shin Sang-ung (신 상 웅) is a short story/novella that was written some time in 1977-8 during a series called the Roadside Drinking Stall, which was turned into a collection in Korean. A roadside drinking stall is a place, often illegal, for quick drinking, a place to eliminate stress and hang with friends, after work and before curfew (depending on the era).
The plot is deceptively simple. A group of friends are meeting the day before they are scheduled to go to Gimpo airport and meet another friend who has been working in the Middle East. The domestic group decide that their absent friend “deserves a heroes welcome” as he is returning for the first time in 13 months. There is a bit of backstory of how the hero ended up overseas (chicanery and deceit in a local firm for which he worked), and some note of letters he has sent them home.
The friends proceed to get very, very drunk, and separate. The next day, they reunite and head to Gimpo where, unaccountably, they stand outside in the frigid weather despite their considerable hangovers. They have purchased a bunch of flowers to celebrate the occasion.
This is a novella that can be easily spoiled, for it has a tremendous bang of an ending. Suffice it to say that Our Friend’s Homecoming is short, sharp, and surprising.
Shin’s topic is the lesser known (certainly lesser known outside Korea) costs of Korean economic success. The success was difficult enough for the workers who provided the domestic impetus for it, but it might have been more difficult for the workers who were sent overseas, particularly to work in the Middle East and fight in Vietnam, to provide much needed hard currency for the Korean ‘miracle.’
In a very few pages Shin outlines the unfortunate labor system in Korea, one so troublesome that leaving sometimes seemed a better option than staying, and then reveals that none of the options were really good. Shin was a remarkably brave writer, and it is worth noting that he was often detained by Korean police for his political stances.
This novella covers, in shorter space and one compact story, some of the same ground covered by Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf and Yang Kwi-ja’s A Distant and Beautiful Place. This is another triumph of the Asia Publishers Bi-lingual Edition of Modern Korean Literature (it is technically #9 in that series) and at a relatively cheap price (7,000 won in Korea, $7 dollars from Amazon) it is certainly worth reading, if only for the reveal at the end. One note, as with all of these books, if you are in Korea you will likely find them in the Korean Literature section of your local bookstore, and not in the English Language, or translated English Language section.