The Cry of the Magpies, by Kim Dong-ni

The Portable Library of Korean Literature • Short Fiction • 3 • Jimoondang Publishing • Seoul

The Cry of the Magpies, By Kim Dong-Ni begins with an unusual literary conceit. The narrator tells us that what we are about to read is his retelling of a book he once came across that moved him as he felt “fraternal” with the author. Despite, apparently, having the story in hand, the narrator only promises to “stick to the author’s own words and expressions as much as possible.” This warrant raises a variety of questions, but without addressing them, the narrator jumps into ‘his’ story. We never directly see or hear from the narrator again, as the story ends without comment from him.

As typical in the Portable Library series, this story is a sad and perverse one. Bong-su returns from war after having shot his own fingers off. He is returning in search of his fiancée. Upon his return he finds his mother mortally ill, and his fiancée the wife of another man. His mother has internalized the cry of local magpies, and converted them from a symbol of good luck to a symbol of doom. Now, whenever the magpies cry the mother coughs and often begs for Bong-su to end her life, a request he frequently feels sympathetic to. Bong-su tries unsuccessfully to regain his fiancée, and by the end of the story he too has apparently gone mad, in a somewhat unexpected conclusion that features his fiancee’s sister. To say more would be to destroy the surprise of the ending.

The symbol of the story is the magpie, but Kim, perhaps suggesting something about the larger story, somewhat inverts the meaning of the magpie. Koreans typically think magpies bearers of good news and heralds of good company. In fact Wikipedia notes that the magpie “has been adopted as the “official bird” of numerous South Korean cities, counties and provinces.” Kim subverts this and turns the magpie into a more ambivalent symbol, one that can bring either good news or very bad news. Kim indicates this kind of inversion or yin-yang relationship in text as well: “The way I looked at it, “Help me” could very naturally become “Kill me, as suffering deepened into bottomless despair.”

At the end of the story Kim has left us with a similarly entangled message that only love can survive the war, but the war ensures that love can only kill.

As The Cry of the Magpies is very brief, Joomindang also included another short story, Deungsin-bul which is even shorter and of less consequential plot. As in The Cry of the Magpies, Deungsin-bul begins with a brief setup. A young Korean, conscripted by the Japanese army, looks for a way to escape. He sets his mind on escape to a Buddhist temple and here he finds a life-sized statue of a legendary Buddhist monk who burned himself as a sacrifice in order to redeem sinful and weak humanity. The young Korean struggles with the outward appearance of the Buddha, which is not traditional, and by the time he comes to peace with it, his superior seems to hint that the young Korean himself has some aspects of Deungshi-bul in him.

An amusing sub-plot, perhaps even closer to a theme than a plot, is that Deungshi-bul is partly revered because his self-martyrdom has been extremely remunerative for the temple. Kim works this in at sly angles, but it helps to keep the story grounded, and also adds a slight air of humor to the story.

4 thoughts on “The Cry of the Magpies, by Kim Dong-ni

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  2. I think you or the translator of this book made a small mistake. Deungshi-bul(등시불) is a typo. Deungshin-bul(등신불) is the right word.

    FYI, 등신불(等身佛) means a life-sized buddha statue as it is mentioned above. 등신 means life-size and 불 means a buddha statue. Just for somebody who is curious about the word.

    Oh, actually 불 also means budda.

  3. Oh, I checked the article again. When you first mentioned the word, you used the correct word, “Deungsin-bul”. But, after that you wrongly wrote the spellings.

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