Review: The Complete “Toy City” by Lee Dong-ha

NOTE: A shorter, Jimoondang, version of this book has been previously reviewed here.

Cover of "Toy City"

Cover of “Toy City”

Toy City is based on Lee Dong-Ha’s own childhood experiences in a refugee camp in Daegu, although Yun, the main character in the book, is transplanted from the countryside to a refuge camp on a hillside near Seoul. Lee was born in 1942 in Osaka, Japan and immigrated to North Gyeongsang province right after Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule. Lee Dong-Ha’s Toy City is an excellent evocation of childhood, regardless of location or country.

In the introduction, translator Chi-Young Kim notes that, “Toy City, while solidly placing the narrative in the political environment of the mid 1950s, just after the Korean War, and touching on sexual politics and class issues, refuses to make politics a central issue.” With main character Yun and his best friend Tae-gil engaging in the remarkable acts of imagination that make childhood a special time even in difficult circumstances. The lack of overt politicization or framing in the context of war and separation in this novel is stunning in comparison to many contemporary works of Korean fiction. This makes Toy City a most useful translation, because although the historical reality is in the story, it is allowed to be the background against which the more personal story of a boy coming of age, takes place. Frankly, to an English speaking general audience, this is likely to be a more compelling narrative than of the broader, but relatively unknown to the West, vicissitudes of Korean history.

The extent to which it does this is almost shocking. In the second sentence of the book, our fourth-grade narrator Yun says, “I believe the war had ended a year or two earlier.” A reader new to modern Korean literature might not understand how unusual that statement is, but the tone continues as, later, Yun discusses it fairly dismissively, “I didn’t really know how the war had swept through this city. The things I had seen thus far had been remaining scars” like the suddenly revealed scars on his father’s head. Even the event that precipitates Yun’s families’ ‘ostracism’ to the city, an ostracism which seems pretty obviously political, is downplayed. The closest Lee comes to describing the effects are when he notes, “As for my mother, she was leaving behind more relatives than any person who had left the village. Even so, not many people came out to see us off when we left. That was why my mother was furtively wiping tears from her eyes with the corner of her long cotton apron. Crouched beside me between the furniture, she couldn’t have looked smaller or more pitiful.”

This is not to say that politics are unimportant in Toy City, rather that they are invoked subtly. In one of his most brilliant characterizations, Lee paints a picture of the futility of becoming relentlessly locked into the pain of history. One of Yun’s neighbors is Mr. Ju, a carpenter of unusual skills who has left his first family across the 38th parallel. Mr. Ju is also a drunkard who, when violently enraged, terrorizes his family, completely obliterates his crude home, then cheerfully rebuilds it. Yun relates, “Ju’s strange drunken habits emerged when he finally arrived home. He would lock himself in. Then, the sound of his belongings being smashed to bits would leak out from behind the closed door.” The next day would be different, “With genuine amazement and envy, everyone watched the creation of a completely new and different living quarters from those of the day before, in the same limited space. For Ju, who had lost everything, his wooden box-like room might have been the only and the only toy granted to him.”

This is a clever take on at least two things – the rage of reliving the past and the Korean national obsession with destruction and rebuilding, both as a historical reality and Korea’s ongoing redevelopment strategy.

This is as obvious as Lee gets, and after the brilliance of his description here, even the most sceptical reader is likely to grant him the strategy. The plot is relatively simple, Yun’s family is banished to the city for the unspecified crimes of Yun’s uncle. Once Yun’s family arrives in the city, the story becomes a coming-of-age tale (In some ways similar to Oh Jun Hee’s Chinatown), beginning with Yun’s recognition that his father, by circumstance of banishment or by reality of Yun’s improved perception, is extremely imperfect. The father is incompetent: Yun remembers him as competent at farming, but in the city he is a failure. The father’s attempts to make a living by baking and selling muffins is an awful failure, which is exacerbated by the fact that the family, then has to eat the bitter tasting muffins until they are sick.

Like many young men, Yun alternately loves and is repulsed by his family. Certainly, when he gets a rare chance, to go work for a wealthy couple, he immediately decides living with his family is superior, but he loathes his sister for marrying up in social status and comes to despise his father’s bumbling. Yun goes through the struggles of young adolescence – there are some great descriptions of the alienation that young male teens experience – and family traumas beyond that described here.

The new edition of Toy City, by Lee Dong-ha and ably translated by Kim Chi-young, replaces an earlier, fragmentary translation done in the course of the Jimmoondang Portable Library of Korean Literature series. The new version is better both by virtue of its completeness (only one of the three chapters was translated in the previous version) and by the sparkle and verve of the translation.

Toy City reminds me, in some ways, of Park Wan-so’s Who Ate Up all the Shinga in that it tells a story redolent of Korean history and politics, but which focuses tightly on a family story that anyone can relate to. It’s a good book to pick up if you want to read a combination of cultural history and an incomplete coming of age story.