Earlier, I posted (after prompting!) a mention of the fact that I had read one story of Yun Ch’oe called The Last of Ha’nako. I really hadn’t liked it that much, as it hinged on a pretty obvious plot twist, although one that might have not been quite so obvious in Korea, at the time Yun wrote the story.
Today I read The Flower with Thirteen Fragrances and I read an entirely different author. With an omniscient third-person narrator, always a good way to deal with a fractured story, Ch’oe relates the story of two lost souls, Bai and “Green Hands” who meet each other in near tragedy and once joined, work together to create beauty.
As in The Last of Ha’nako the ending becomes clear about halfway through the story, but it is not based on sudden revelation (and one that comes as no suprise), but rather it flows naturally from the events of the story. Bai and Green Hands create the “Winter Crysanthemum” a new, beautiful, semi-narcotic, and potentially quite valuable flower. The flower is a result of their love, dedication to handcraft, and partly to their desire to flee society. As the fame of their flower grows, that same society naturally encroaches the couple, and they find their brilliant creation threatened by extinction. Take the “flower” to be symbolic of their love (or not, really) and you have the standard elements of the “us against the world” love story. The Flower with Thirteen Fragrances has a bit more to say than just that.
Ch’oe masterfully mixes her elements of fairy-tale with descriptions of the ‘outside’ world that very deftly navigate space between parody and hard-edged description. As the flower becomes popular, photographers arrive, pa-jeong stands pop up, and cheesy nicknacks begin to proliferate.
Outside the village here is a wonderful scene in a government office as officials attempt to craft, in 40 minutes, a complete program with which to deal with the horticultural, social, and medical implications of the thirteen different flowers. This meeting concludes with the farcical,
“our forty minutes are already up. We’ll make that the conclusion and close this conference.”
“But what conclusion do you mean?”
“What we’ve just come up with.”
I hear echoes of Alice in Wonderland there.
Finally, Ch’oe introduces three un-named characters (They are known as K, L, and M, but might as easily be Paeckche, Silla, and Koguryo) each of whom hope to profit from publishing credit related to the flowers. This section is an amusing commentary on personal pride, patriotism, and idealism, and the possible infamy that can be associated with each. Individually, the ‘letter-men’ muses on how they might steal credit for the flower and how their name for the as-yet unnamed blossom, is superior to that of the others.
In the end, only their hatred that someone else gets credit remains, and they successfully conspire to destroy the Wind Chrysanthemum. In fact, they proudly trumpet their venal reunion as evidence of their sincerity and probity. This is an amusing take on the traditional notion of modern Korean Literature that re-union, the end of diaspora, is innately a good thing.
In her clever way, in quite palatable text, Ch’oe delivers a message parallel to that of The Descendants of Cain by Hwang Sun-won, without the un-subtle “happy ending” of that story,* that loyalty and love have difficulty standing before treachery and evil.
The story ends in a romantic, or sad depending upon reader’s disposition, moment, with the two lovers setting out for the “North Pole,” and freedom.
As I noted in my previous comments on this work, it is available at: http://hompi.sogang.ac.kr/anthony/klt/97wint/choeyun.htm
Of published in The Golden Phoenix: Seven Contemporary Korean Short Stories
Which you can find here http://www.rienner.com/title/The_Golden_Phoenix_Seven_Contemporary_Korean_Short_Stories
Definitely worth the short time it takes to read.
*Both works discussed are translated by Suh Ji-moon, who partners with Julie Pickering on The Descendants of Cain work