The Dwarf, by Cho Se-hui

Many years ago, far too early (before I understood the slightest bit 0f Korean history or literature) I got the chance to review Cho Se-Hui’s The Dwarf in Acta Koreana. Now, as I work through the Jimoondang Portable Literature collection, I come across A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball, which is in many ways the key chapter to The Dwarf.

I have to admit that this story/novel boggles me a little bit, and may well be one of those stories which you really need to review in the original Korean to completely understand. Because of the complications of the larger The Dwarf and its self-contained novelette A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball, I’m going to, a la James over at The Grand Narrative, break this up into three pieces. First I will review the larger novel (easily available here on Amazon), then I will tackle the knotty story at the heart of it, and third I will jot down some notes about Cho, the times in which he wrote, and the impact of the novel.

First, my “oh so long ago” review, in its full envelope of incomprehension (I do hope I got some things right!):


Cho Sehǔi’s The Dwarf is a powerful work of social criticism focusing on the forced redevelopment of Seoul in the 1970s, and the human costs that accompanied it. It combines biting realism with an often fantastic structure that pulls a reader into the difficult and fragmented era the work describes. Cho combines a kaleidoscopic narrative approach, powerful use of scientific symbols, and a dead-flat and deadeye narrative tone. Reading The Dwarf requires some attention, but the interlocking narrative arcs and often disconcerting internal shifts in narrator or time frame are both supportive of the theme of the book and ultimately rewarding.

The Dwarf was written between 1975 and 1978 as a series of semi-connected short stories published across several Korean magazines. In Korea these works were collected into A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball, which has been re-named The Dwarf in the current publication. The Dwarf is a yŏnjak sosŏl (linked novel) or collection of separately published short stories which can stand alone or supplement each other. Traditionally, yŏnjak sosŏl was written by multiple authors but Cho asserts the role of multiple-author to himself to create a particularly close thematic coherence while simultaneously partaking of the form’s fractured structure. The yŏnjak sosŏl structure of The Dwarf is the first indication of the powerful mimetic approach Cho takes to his work. This mimesis gives the reader a closer sense of navigating the same world the characters of The Dwarf inhabit. That world is a harsh one in which untrammeled capital works its semi-conscious but inevitable will upon the disenfranchised. The Dwarf asks whom “progress” is for, who loses and who wins?

Cho Sehui was well situated to write about such a topic. Born in 1942, he was a member of the so-called “hangul generation,” the first post-war generation who were taught and wrote in Hangul, not Japanese. Cho’s education was not colonial yet, paradoxically, his most important work would focus on internal colonization and would do so in an overly political way. This was a departure for Korean literature in which most political commentary had largely been in the background or historical in nature, but rarely commented on directly by characters or in text. Cho’s generation was to be the one that broke this wall of silence:

This was precisely the generation that went through the calamity of internecine struggle in a state of less awakened consciousness, that is, in a state of undeveloped powers of discrimination, and also the fact that they leapt to the fore as leading elements of the student revolution soon after passing through the void of ruin that immediately followed the war. Such generational characteristics . . . suggest two sorts of complex dispositions . . . they may show a fear of history (given the June 25 and April 19 experiences) or, on the other hand, feel either potency or frustration (as in reaction to [the] May 16 [coup d’état]); with regard to life and living, they may show intense despair (having passed through the void of ruin) or, on the other hand, feel either sardonic or contempt toward life. (South Korea’s Minjung Movement: The Culture and Politics of Dissidence. Kenneth M. Wells – editor. : University of Hawaii Press. Honolulu. 1995. Page Number: 215)

For Cho, the response was both sardonic and despairing.

History was also poised for Choi’s work. Park Chung Hee, still one of Korea’s most popular leaders, presided over a South Korean “economic miracle.” But this miracle included a forced modernization that was largely mounted on the backs on the poor and the weak, and reaction was inevitable. On November 13th of 1970, Chon T’ae-il publicly immolated himself in protest against labor exploitation in the rayon garment industry and this act helped define a new era of workers activism. At the same time increasing demographic and economic pressure on Seoul resulted in waves of ‘illegitimate’ housing developments being razed in un-remunerated and semi-remunerated evictions of the poor, who could often not afford the replacement housing that was only sporadically provided for them. Laura Nelson describes this process in her book, “Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea”. She notes that “people continued to come … until the capital was gorged on people and the government began, in the 1960’s, to bulldoze neighborhoods and cart the people away.” Still people came, and still they were carted away.

The Dwarf revolves around a physical dwarf, a proverbial “little guy,” his family, friends and the changing economic and social relationships forged in, or destroyed by, forced Korean modernization. The book elliptically follows the dwarf’s stunted existence through squalid cityscapes and demonstrates how the oppressions visited on the father are revisited upon the children. A short cast of characters cycles in and out of the stories in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of the movie “Pulp Fiction.”

The dwarf is a handyman living in the Felicity District of the Eden Province. The area is slated for forced redevelopment and the dwarf and his family are evicted from the only place they can call a happy home, notwithstanding the “sewer-creek” which runs next door to it. Economic forces destroy the dwarf’s home and as the story works towards its unhappy conclusion the dwarf eventually commits suicide in a factory smokestack while his family is sundered. With his diminutive height of 3 feet 10 inches in “real life,” the dwarf is also symbolic of the individually crippling and diminishing immensity of the economic apparatus of the modern
state. Family members routinely rue that society mis-measures the dwarf, taking him at his height and not at his skills. “People called father a dwarf. Their perception was correct. Sad to say, that was their only correct perception of father This societal focus on literal measure is a subtle irony obliquely referencing several aspects of modernization, including the necessities of measuring everything, regularizing the size of everything, and commodifying everything. It is no coincidence that as this book was being written the Park government was on the streets of Seoul, it’s fashion police literally measuring the hair-length of men and the skirt-length of women. In the factories, meanwhile, standardization, routinization and the tyranny of the time clock erased human differences between workers when not actually erasing humanity.

This diminished state is represented physically and symbolically throughout the work. The book is partially framed by two stories featuring the crippled Squatlegs and Humpback who are forced from their homes and into a literal freak-show. Healthy characters grow disabilities throughout the work. The dwarf’s health fades. The union organizer, Chi-Sop is slowly whittled down throughout the book. Near the conclusion of the book he is missing two fingers and his face has nearly been destroyed, “his nose was squashed down and disfigured and below his eyes there were scars.” Even the rich and apparently successful son of the Chaebol leader is rendered psychologically broken (“The Spinyfish Entering My Net”) and spiritually empty.

This scarring and diminution is not merely physical, it is social and economic as well. The dwarf dies, his son becomes a murderer, and the dwarf’s daughter is reduced to concubinage to steal back her families’ right to a home. This last theft is largely unrewarded as when the daughter returns to her home, “there was no sign that the dwarf, the dwarf’s two sons, and the dwarf’s daughter had ever dwelt there.” Instead, the engines of omnipotent capital have destroyed all signs of previous human habitation and sundered all previous human relationships.

The confusion, disorder, and randomness of the world Cho describes is partially paralleled in his structure of loosely linked yet intersecting stories, narratives out of time and space, and short, disconnected sentence structure. Cho’s narrative structure, is analogous to the era about which he writes and it gives a sense of the disorder in which the characters live. In this time neighborhoods, families, and social structures were destroyed in seeming instants by the implacable onslaught of government mandated economic progress. From inside that historical process, events must have seemed without meaning, or conscious intent, a series of random forces converging to destroy. In The Dwarf traditional social structures, communal and Confucian, are eliminated in a moment and replaced by the relationships of capital. Nelson notes that the eviction/building process “represented a rupture with the nations’ Korea history” and Choi articulates this dislocation clearly. Similarly, outcomes are random and often without meaning. One of the key plot turns is the dwarf’s eldest son’s murder of the head of the Ungang Group, which has spearheaded the mass eviction that catches up the dwarf and his family. The son, however, mistakenly kills the boss’s brother, who is similar in appearance. Even rough justice is, apparently, random.

At the local level Cho’s style is tight, brightly observant, and features blunt-instrument sentences. Cho is terse, sometimes to the point of aridity. He rarely uses dependent clauses or adjectives. Even discussing enormous themes like death, love, and loss, he is brief and precise. When the dwarfs’ daughter attempts to come to terms with her loss of family, chastity, and honor she muses:

When I think of death a scene come to mind: a desert horizon. Around nightfall the wind gets sandy. At the end of the line described by the horizon I stand naked. My legs are slightly spread, my arms drawn close to me. My head is lowered halfway and my hair covers my chest. If I close my eyes and count to ten my outline fades and disappears. All that remains is the windy gray horizon. This is death as I know it.

These sentences are complex by Cho’s normal standards with linking “ands” and a colon, and yet simple, brief, evocative and explicative. Cho links loss of chastity (“naked”, “legs slightly spread” and “arms drawn close.”), loss of identity (“my outline… disappears”) and death in just eight sentences averaging barely over ten words each. This economy suits the generally undereducated characters without betraying their existence as thinking characters, adds an air of journalistic verisimilitude to his writing and directly suits a story that is, in part, a jeremiad against the blunt and unsentimental tactics of industrializing capitalism and governmental unconcern.

Paradoxically, this economy lends Cho’s writing an air of fantasy. By rendering the often fatalistic mini-narratives in the book as short and clipped, Cho removes them from the romantic, the overwrought, and the character-driven. These narratives are presented from a remote and distant view, regardless of the personal pain they contain.

Cho leaves his final question unanswered, except by symbolic implication. The Dwarf starkly delineates the emptiness of promises of “modernization.” But who is responsible and what is the future? The Dwarf blames capitalism as an historical force and goes on to suggest that the dystopia it creates might be endless. Two of Choi’s signature symbols in the work, the Mobiüs Strip and the Klein Bottle, focus on the interlocked and/or infinite. These scientific creations are both limited and local while at the same time looped and without boundary. They go on ‘forever and ever’ without delineation or distinction, without beginning or end. This circle of life and endless, but flat and repetitive, work is also suggested by the framed nature of The Dwarf. The Dwarf is doubly framed, first by the narrative of a math instructor and then by the narrative of two cripples, Squatlegs and Humpback. The ‘outside” frame is the story of a math teacher rendered impotent by the strictures of the system in which he teaches. The math instructor, without offering hope for change, explains to his students that their failure has been pre-ordained and without identifiable cause. When a student asks who is responsible the instructor replies:

“They … Who can be more specific than that? One of their characteristics is that until the day they die they won’t assume responsibility for a single thing. They all have plausible alibis. … It’s also a scheme to develop you gentlemen and your successors as human capital. Gentlemen, we are not the ends, you and I. Rather, we’ve become the means without realizing it.

There is no explicit responsibility, the evil “they” are unnamed and unnamable. The ‘internal’ frame is the story of the handicapped and murderous duo of Squatlegs and Humpback who, after even the ‘success’ of an initial murder and robbery of a property speculator, are betrayed and left alone. Their promise of savior, their “master,” turns out to be nothing but another one of the “them.” In The Dwarf there is no way out but the choice the dwarf himself takes – a futile attempt to scale the heights and a fall back to death. The Dwarf ends, without hope, instead with the promise (and curse) of endless repetition.

On a more prosaic note, the translation here is smooth. No English reader will trip upon unlikely metaphors or ludicrous phrases. In part this has to do with Cho’s simple sentence structure and vocabulary, but thi
s is also a credit to the translation skills of Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton. These are experienced translators and it shows. Bruce Fulton is the inaugural holder of the Young-Bin Min Chair in Korean Literature and Literary Translation in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia and has done a wide variety of editing and translating, often with his wife.

The Dwarf is a valuable addition to the small, but steadily growing body of Korean literature translated into English. It is a novel with relevance for most readers as the social and political issues it addresses are universal. More important, The Dwarf is a work of staggering imagination and technical control balanced by social realism and granular detail. Cho takes on a big story, perhaps the second biggest story of post-war Korean history, and manages to fit it into twelve short stories of one small man and his insignificant friends. In one way the work is a masterpiece of miniaturization and in another it is a sprawling epic. In either case, it deserves a very wide audience.

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