The Portable Library of Korean Literature • Short Fiction • 19 • Jimoondang Publishing • Seoul
A satirical portrayal of a generational conflict between father and son, The Chronicle of Manchwidang tells the story of one man’s obsessive quest to hang on to his family home. Consumed by a legend that identifies his former residence as being located on a ‘propitious site sure to produce three ministers of state,’ the father comes to believe that the house is the key to making his son a high-ranking government official. The son, however, has ideas of his own, ultimately rejecting both his father’s plans and the demands of the strict workplace hierarchy to which he is expected to conform. The story ends on a tragic note: when the father is finally able, he returns to his hometown to reclaim his house, only to find that the entire area has been designated as an industrial complex and that the village itself is fated to disappear from the face of the earth.
The Chronicle of Manchwidang, by Kim Moon Soo, is one of the funniest, if not the funniest, translated Korean stories I have yet read. At the same time it is a well-thought out meditation on familial and social duties and the role of the Korean citizen caught in that web. It is also, remarkably for Korean fiction, the story of a nearly classic western “tragic hero” (a character which is nearly invisible in most translated Korean fiction) Finally, nearly casually, as the other themes play out, it is also an indictment of the costs of modernization. The Chronicle of Manchwidang deservedly won the 20th Tong-in Literature Award.
Did I mention it was funny?
The story is not as complicated as the book is, if that makes sense. The narrator Yi, in trouble at work for taking a moral stand, and consequently in trouble with his wife, is heading back to his hometown to try to find his father, who has gone missing. The narrator’s strong presumption is that his alcoholic father has gone back ‘home’ to try to recover the family homestead, which is associated with family prophecies of success. On his way, Yi meets characters who spell out various costs of modernization; some semi-hicks who long for the good old days and a young man who has been knowingly poisoned by work conditions (a poisoning that echoes the death of Yi’s own mother). Yi reaches his hometown, meets a few more folks, finds his father, explains to him that the house is un-salvageable, and accepts from his father a large sum of money, which the father intends to be bribe-money to protect Yi at work, but which Yi takes as a way to have an escape hatch if his moral stand at work destroys him.
This battle between Yi and his work responsibilities is where he reveals himself to be a tragic hero, with his hamartia being classically hubristic – he believes he can live morally in an immoral society and willfully chooses to do so, aware of the risks he runs. Author Kim is expert at quickly sketching the impact and importance of the social structure that Yi trucks with. Yi’s “crime” is first introduced, in a disparaging way, in a flashback including his wife, who clearly does not approve. This is a nice authorial touch as it lays two levels of threat down against Yi’s hubris. Second, in the meeting with the semi-hicks, there is a discussion of responsibilities (largely old-fashioned and past ones for the semi-hicks) with respect to society, and Yi is judged to be on the “right” (read ‘society’) side of that, although he is a rebel. Finally, and in one of the most comic scenes in the novel, when Yi reaches his hometown he is rousted by policemen, right until the time they realize his name and position, at which point they meekly flip over on their backs for Yi. Worse, they add another layer of social expectation to Yi’s life: Yi is taken to be the subject of his old houses’ prophecy of success. He is not only a part of the modern city-elite to these homefolks, he is something very nearly like a traditional Korean hero (which means within social norms and achieving goals that society would sanction) and that comes with quite a few expectations.
Yi struggles with all of this, at one point saying, “I did not want to remain the hero of this embarrassing epic any longer.” (72) In fact, Yi wants to continue to fight the good fight, and when his father gives him the bribe money, Yi resolves to continue to fight his superior, and keep the money as a backup plan to open a bar, a bar named after Manchwidang, the name of the house his father first lost to debts and alcoholism, and then to modernization. In fact, this last bit is when Yi departs a bit from the classic western model of the tragic hero, since he isn’t killed by his hubris (and in fact departs from it in some sense, as he becomes dishonest to his father).
As I type these words I realize that this all sounds rather dire, but it is Kim’s gift that he makes most of this completely amusing. From a pun on Manchwidang (which can mean “drunken house” or “always green foliage) at the outset, to an amusing scene in which Yi tries to bribe a hotelier for rooms that don’t exist, all the way to the sudden subservience of the hometown policemen, Yi keeps the clever set-pieces coming, and this serves to balance the aspects of the story that are tragic. And, to be clear, the story does end rather happily, with the father giving his son a gift that will, one way or the other, save him, Yi “lying right and left in great spirits” (79), and with a final meditation on what lasts and what doesn’t.
The inner sleeve of the book correctly analyzes Kim as describing “a contemporary Korean society in which ethics and social conscience are beginning to give way to culture driven by materialism,” (82). That blurb at the top, from the back cover, is a bit more pessimistic about the ending than I am. The village is, of course, lost, but the father and son are semi-reconciled, and the son is, for better or worse, out of the vise he was in at the start of the story.
Finally, I should note there seems to be NO information about Kim Moon Soo on the English intarwebs. ☹