Review: “The Drizzle and other Korean short stories”

Today I’m lucky enough to be reviewing a rarity: The Drizzle and other Korean short stories. This is volume two of a ten volume series put together by Korean UNESCO. These are interesting volumes on several grounds, one of which are there unusual construction. In this series two authors are chosen per book, and the translators are quite varied – the translators, I’m guessing, did this work while they were training at the KLTI, or whatever its predecessor might have been (The KLTI wasn’t official until 2001, though it was more or less created in 1996 under a different name).

In any case, these volumes came and went without much fanfare and now are only available through specialty bookstores online and at a very few libraries. If you like, as I post this, you can get a copy of Drizzle on Amazon for £188.09.

This volume, number 2, is notable because it has two really iconic authors, Hwang Sun-won and Yi Pom-son, with the former being perhaps the most famous modern Korean author in Korea.

The stories are as follows:

The Drizzle (Hwang Sun-won)
Acorns (Hwang Sun-won)
Stars (Hwang Sun-won)
The Moon and the Crab’s Legs (Hwang Sun-won)
Masks (Hwang Sun-won)
Life (Hwang Sun-won)
The Weighted Tumbler (Hwang Sun-won)
The Children (Hwang Sun-won)
For Dear Life (Hwang Sun-won)
Time for You and Me Alone (Hwang Sun-won)
Stray Bullet (Yi Pom-son)
Cosmos (Yi Pom-son)
Autumn Leaves (Yi Pom-son)
The People of Crane Village (Yi Pom-son)
God of the Earth (Yi Pom-son)

Hwang’s work is relevatory. I had previously known him for: Sonagi, a boring love story that is immoderately loved by Koreans; Descendants of Cain, a rather depressing pundan munhak, and; the short story Cranes, which is a touching story of personal loyalty in difficulty times.

Hwang writes in a space somewhere between parable, romanticism, and hallucination. As the flyleaf notes, “Hwang Sun-won’s stories depict various emotional experiences of brief moment of human life in an outstandingly elegant style. The Drizzle is a rather directly narrative (for Hwang) story of death and surprising life during the Korean War. Hwang appends a lovely, dry and deadpan conclusion. I suspect this story was chosen to lead off partly because it is one of his most traditional structures. Acorns quickly gets us deeper into Hwang’s style with its fractured, fable-like, and semi-surrealistic conflation of life and folk tales. Stars is along this line also, a charming and very sad story of what happens when a young boy hears a chance remark comparing his dead, and highly idealized, mother, to his alive and unfortunately quite quotidian sister. Hwang weaves in celestial symbology and the ending is ironic in at least two cruel ways. The Moon and the Crab’s Legs is initially amusing, the story of a crab perplexed by why he walks the crab-like way he does. The story turns more serious as it goes and features a surprising ending in some ways similar to the ending of Ha Seong-nan’s Waxen Wings (reviewed here in the context of the collection Waxen Wings). Life is one of the lesser stories in the collection (by which I mean no insult), a story of survival during war time. The Weighted Tumbler returns to what Hwang does best, combining a lovely story, in this case intergenerational friendship, with a more tragic story, in this case of familial separation, and concluding by tying it together with a beautiful semi-hallucination that puts the story into a kind of cosmic perspective. The Children is almost not a piece of fiction, but more a meditation on the innocence of children, no matter how dirtied their environment. For Dear Life is premised on something that comes up now and then in Korean literature, the story of the rebel who in some way betrays, or does not live up to the rebellion they are in (Ch’oe Yun’s The Grey Snowman is of this flavor, among others). Finally, Time for you and Me Alone is a quite ironically titled exploration of soldiers, one badly wounded (and this is also a theme Korean literature comes back to repeatedly), and the decisions they make for survival. As Hwang often does, he appends a surprising coda to the tale.

All Hwang’s stories are short, the longest two only being eleven pages each, but they are packed with incident, symbolism, metaphor, suprising wit given some of the topics, and always bring moments of recognition and surpise, often at the same time.

Yi Pom-son is perhaps most famous for his story Stray Bullet (Obaltan). This is a long but remarkable story of a family that is, nearly literally, dying one piece at a time. Placed in “Liberation Village” (currently known as Haebangchon and, amusingly, now primarily a neighborhood for expat hipsters and English teachers – I should note that I type this only 5 minutes away from the foot of Haebangchon), a family that has fled from the north falls apart one seam at a time. The constant beat in the background, the senile grandmother’s plea “let’s go,” meaning back home across the 38th parallel, is both grating and pathetic, but at the same time, by stories’ end, seems to be a Cassandra-like plea for sanity and safety. Stray Bullet is a brutal story, but well enough told that you read through it before the cumulative effect of its brutality becomes clear. The Cosmos is one of those Sonagi-like (Or Kim Yong-ik’s Love in Winter) stories in which a young male narrator approaches love in such a leisurely fashion that it is no surprise that it amounts to nothing in the end. Autumn Leaves is an odd little story about a mad woman who lives just below the 38th parallel. The People of Crane Village is a well-crafted story which, through the history of a small and declining village and its semi-mystical attachment to a tree in which cranes breed, somehow manages to tell the story of the Korean war. Cranes are Korean symbols of longevity and of course Hwang’s “Cranes” used them as a symbol of the Korean people as a whole. The last story in the collection is God of the Earth, and it’s a bit mystifying. The story of a minister and his wife holding their ministry out against redevelopment, it ends rather abruptly and without apparent point.

Perhaps I simply didn’t understand?

That last story notwithstanding, this is an excellent collection and if you do have access to a library that carries it, its worth checking out to read two authors dealing with quite serious social and political traumas in Korea, but in stories quite deftly told and accomplished as literature.