The Cruel City is one of those anthologies that might have made sense in Korean language and culture, but which seem illy conceived and unfocused in English-language practice. Hints that this might be the case are present even in the introduction, which not only completely neglects to address one of the stories in the book, but also at least twice notes the likelihood that “Koreanness” has been lost in translation including the alarming:
His dialogues are distinguished by a rare quality of concentration and compactness which may not have been satisfactorily carried over in translation. I believe, however, that this is merely one of the many losses that accompany translation of literary works.
We do not know if the works presented here will be able to give the feel of what can only be called “Koreanness” to our foreign readers. Part of the characteristic quality in Korean language necessare for an inside look into the knowledge and image Korean people have of the world has inevitable been lost through translation and this loss may well have weakened the impression of Koreanness in the works.
Certainly, among its brethren in the Si-sa-yong-o-sa “The Best Korean Short Stories” collections, it is not among the best.
Thematically the anthology is meant to be loosely tied to the concept of the city, but with two exceptions, doesn’t really seem to deal with the city all that much.
The first story, Chong-in’s A Journey actually tells the story of a small town well outside the city and the experiences of an unlucky woman passing through. The characters all seem overdrawn, caricatures of rubes, and everyone acts hysterical at every opportunity. By the time the unlikely plot has unspooled, and our hero is back on her way to the big city.
Choe Il-nam’s The Tottering Castle is the story of a country man who educates himself and marries a very rich woman in the city. He feels a bit put upon by relatives who hit him up for money, and when his mother moves in from the South, marital woes ensue. The story seems to be more about Korean inter-generational stress (which the story overlooks pointing out, perhaps because this would obvious to any Korea reader) and a marriage that was based on shaky foundations from the outset.
The Mobius Band, by Sho Se-hui, is part of the much larger novel The Dwarf which I have reviewed here. It’s a good story, with a nice structure and a brief, violent interregnum which does a nice job of expressing the tension, even hatred, between the dispossessed and the powerful. If you want to read this, however, it’s worth purchasing the whole book, in which all the other stories are equally powerful and blend into a coherent whole.
A Small Experience is by Pak Wan-suh, but it lacks her typical punch. The story is sad, a hapless man caught in a very small crime and the layers of corruption his wife must navigate to extricate him. But nothing really happens (perhaps that is part of the point – the banality of it) and the ending is restrained to the point of nearly fading out.
Yi Jong-chun’s Cruel City is an opaque (the introduction calls it Kafka-esqu, but I was hard pressed to find that) allegory about..well.. freedom somehow, but how it relates to the city is difficult for a reader to determine. I didn’t mind reading it much – it is well written – but I was unclear on what I was supposed to feel at its conclusion.
A Torch-light for the Magpie Nest by So Tong-hun is a sad story of illiterate peasants who vainly hope the some very old technology, acupuncture, can cure the horribly deformed feet of their son. It is a touching story, but has no apparent connection to the city, or industrialization.
Windfall by Hwang Dok-yong hits marginally closer to target, though it is sometimes difficult to navigate its tangled multiple plots. It is the story of a small village that has, for now, escaped, redevelopment and a day on which many things tangle up, but in the end, refreshingly, everything somehow turns out. It seems to be a meditation on the ways in which a small community can, despite schisms, support itself. So it is about some kind of “city” though scarcely a cruel one.
All in all, the lack of focus of this anthology and many of the stories, makes it one of the anthologies to give a pass on; at least until you have read your way through the many other, and better, collections that have been reviewed at KTLIT and elsewhere.