Human Decency by Gong Ji Young is one of the smaller works in the Jimoondang series, partly because it is so parochially Korean, pitting a facilely “international” character, who has had the nerve to look outside of Korea, against a “true Korean hero” who has relentlessly stayed inside the grinder of Korean politics. It has that peculiar kind of Korean romanticism about Korean history that does not translate into English.
The narrator is tortured by her abandonment of political purity and she brings that angst to her assignments. In this Manichean construction she meets Gwon Ogyu a “noble” rebel and also Yi Minja, who has spent an international life. The narrator both loathes and loves (but mainly loathes) Yi, and in this struggle seems to argue that anything modern is, in fact a way, to spurn Korean history and society.
The narrator also goes into paroxysms of some sort when she works on foreign subjects, sliding into the false dualism that sometimes characterizes the Korean view of the “outside” world:
I wondered how the people in those countries could have such bright faces, faces devoid of guilt and apology. How could the drink beer every day with salad and fruit slices? How could they go around so proudly in such expensive clothes?
In other words, how could they not be Korean? That this is the real issue is clear in the question, “How could they drink beer every day with salad and fruit slices?” which is ludicrous in most western countries. But it goes on:
What the hell am I doing here looking at slides of exotic foreign food? My friends, the friends I had so passionately declared my love for, had they even tried such food? Would they ever ride in the family car and practice good housekeeping by eating those foods?
The food Gong calls “exotic” include spaghetti, thousand island dressing, and lettuce wrapped sausage. This is Korean exceptionalism of the silliest kind.
It continues, when the reporter has to find some shady place to hide, it is a traditional Korean hostess bar, but of course it is marked as evil by its sign, “Western Liquor – beer.”
When the present comes, of course, all the “true” rebels are dead or sold out – a convenient Manicheism that is often used in literature; kill a few rebels so they can never be seen turning into businessmen or spaghetti salespeople.
Gong’s argument is a “one true path” one. While Yi Minja is a Korean version of a hippie archetype I personally loathe, Gong’s relentless contrast of Yi to Gwon is both one-sided and excludes any other options.
And of course, the symbolism has to be facile in parallel, with the journalist who prides herself on naming her articles instantly naming the one and struggling with the other. The article on Gwon, of course, will be the one named “Human Decency.”
The second story here, Dreams, is similar, with a single female journalist as narrator. The title is ironic, as the dreams turn out to be nightmares from the past, and visions of the hopelessness of the future. The narrator of Dreams is also a survivor, if that is the correct word, of the political activism of the 80’s and if anything more at a loss than the narrator of the first story. She goes fishing with some old friends, both failures of a sort, and while they are supposed to be on a fishing trip, it ends up being something more like a shared bath in a tub of despair.
This sort of story was handled far better, and with much more subtlety, of course, by Ch’oe Yun, in Grey Snowman.