In the volume Hong Gildong the PLKL pairs two stories by Seo Hajin, each based on a previous literary creation. The first story is Hong Gildong, based on a classic Korean story, the Tale of Gildong. The second story is The Woodcutter and the Nymph which is, as the book-cover puts it, “a modern retelling of the well-known Korean folktale “Namamukkun-gwa-seonnyeo.” In both cases, however Seo departs radically from the original text. Also, in both cases the story is that of a person who feels radically disconnected from the world around them.
The historical Tale of Gildong is the story of Hong, a talented, but semi-bastard, child who discovers his own father’s plan to murder him. This drives Hong to a life of crime in which he bedevils the entire Korean state. One of Hong’s tricks, for he is a magician as well as thief, is to reconstitute straw into doppelgangers of himself. These simulacra then run off to the various provinces of Korea where they act as Hong himself, performing various acts of mischief and rebellion. Hong eventually recreates a dream-state, with himself at its head, and reunites happily with his family. Seo takes one particular aspect of the older tale, the creation of a man of straw, and recasts it in the mind of a man who is so alienated from life that he doesn’t want to commit suicide only for fear that suicide would define him – he wants absolute nothingness, and he sees the creation of his own straw replacement as a means to this end.
His life is rather bleak, he lives with a wife who is prone to voicing complaints that echo: “Do you know what I hate most about being a woman? When I’m not hungry and I have to cook for somebody else. And another thing – when I don’t want to have sex and feel I have to.” He begins a series of interrupted meetings with a psychiatrist, and also to behave in self-destructive fashion. The first step of this is to semi-intentionally drive into a sobriety check-point after drinking. As a result of this, he embarks on a love affair which give his life temporary, but illusional, meaning. When this affair collapses, he goes with it. At the end of tale, he steps into traffic to attempt to “meet” his straw doppelganger. Seo begins the last passage of the story with a lovely bit of prose:
“Here I am, growing lighter, ever lighter. Here I am, scattering like straw. I laughed, laughed when something dull bang (sic) into me. I laughed at the tiny shards of light. I laughed and laughed as though all my blood would flow out of me.
It’s a well done piece of work.
The historical tale of the Woodcutter and the Nymph is one of love and separation. Also, kind of about the thick-headedness of the Woodcutter, who repeatedly fails to follow instructions (blinded by love, of course), and thus twice loses his heavenly love. Seo’s The Woodcutter and the Nymph diverges rather radically from this, although perhaps her reference is to the fact that many states are changed in the historical tale.
In Seo’s version, the narrator Jisu is pregnant, perhaps a bit unmoored, and her husband who is typically healthy as an ox, gets ill. But two timelines, perhaps more, are in effect as flashbacks tell the semi-tragic story of the beginning of the marriage. Jisu, like the unnamed narrator of Hong Gildong, is adrift. There is a lovely vacation scene in which Jisu’s reaction to a massage drives home the message that she is without reference to ‘normal’ life. She floats in and out of scenes, ostensibly from her life, but ones that seem nearly impossible to stitch together narratively as it floats from event to event, and country to country.
At the end, Seo returns to the historical tale as Jisu, like the original woodcutter, is left clutching at the hopes of heaven, but without any real hope.