The Last of Hanako actually contains both the story of that title and The Gray Snowman. Both of these stories were quite popular in Korea: The Gray Snowman won the Ton-in Literary award in 1992, and; The Last of Hanako won the Yi Sang Literary Award in 1994.
Both stories also contain multiple layers. In both stories the unspoken story is that women, in the paternalistic Korean society, are ignored, marginalized, and even driven out. But each story also contains another level. In The Gray Snowman Ch’oe does what once might have seemed impossible and questions the process of rebellion. In The Last of Hanako, Ch’oe demonstrates the powerful social forces in Korea that work together to force conformity.
I first reviewed The Last of Hanako in the collection Land of Exile for Acta Koreana, and at the time I gave it too slighting a consideration, for a reason I will discuss shortly. The story is simple. A middle-aged man (known only as “he”), unhappy with his life, is in Venice partly in search of Jang Jin-ja, who had once served as something like muse to ‘him’ and his group of male friends. Jang was nicknamed “Hanako” (“one nose”) only after she had been expelled from the group of friends, and her real name was never spoken by them again. Hanako is an outsider who works her way in, and while her differences are cherished for a while, eventually the (male) society kicks back with cruel force. There are some extremely well written scenes including the expulsion scene, which well portrays the some-times forced nature of the Korean drinking scene (often inextricable from the larger Korean social scene).
Ch’oe plays a funny trick with names in this story – Although Hanako is a nickname (as one character remarks it sounds awfully Japanese
, considering that in Korean it would be “Ko Hana”) Hanako is the only character given a name in the entire story. The men are all known by initial which can be read as a symbol for anonymity in a society that creates facelessness, can be read as a sly reference to post-Gwangju Rebellion convention that co-conspirators must go unnamed, or both. Ch’oe is clever enough that I’m certain she has tried to achieve both effects. Although Hanako is eventually driven from Korea she is the only character given a name because she is the only character who has wherewithal to achieve her dreams. There is a sad and telling passage in which the narrator relates why he and K, another male character, are close:
Chemistry and sociology – their majors in college – had nothing to do with hats, but through sheer coincidence he and K, after stints in one or two other companies, had both settled on the hat business.
In other words, the plans and goals of their youths’ had been abandoned. Ch’oe’s message is dual-leveled: On the one hand it is an indictment of sexism and pressure for social conformity; on the other hand it is the unusual success story as Hanako/Jang Jin-ja achieves everything she wants, though at the cost of living in her homeland.
This leads to the one part of the story that seemed forced, and that is likely a result of reviewing it years later and from a western readers’ perspective. There is a big “reveal” about Hanako’s life (which I will not spoil), which the average western reader will probably figure out after 10 pages of reading. Even if it takes more pages, the fact that the narrator constantly harps on the “unknowability” of Hanako, while describing certain specific features of her life will bring the reveal into premature reality in most readers. This still bothers me slightly, but at the time I’m sure it was rather shocking to a Korean reader and much less clear as the story developed.
The Gray Snowman is a similarly layered story. As in The Last of Hanako, one layer is the mistreatment of women in Korean society, even ironically in the fight for democracy. The other layer, unusually, seems to be a general questioning of the process by which any political organization runs. This is unusual, because it is the context of the democratization process in which Ch’oe places this discussion.
The Gray Snowman features a female protagonist, Ha-won, who has betrayed her family and run to the big city. There, her affinity for banned literature brings her into loose confederation with a dissident group, lead by “An,” that prints banned materials. Ha-won is a little bit like Hanako in that she never quite penetrates the heart of the group to which she is attached. When the dissident association is discovered, Ha is pressured into giving her own ticket out of Korea, her passport, to Kim Hu-jin (a major force of the dissident group who has been offstage to this point, and is also An’s lover). Cut to 25 years later and An is a popular artist, Ha is a marginal worker who has been betrayed by love, and Kim Hu-jin is dead, a victim of starvation in New York. Certainly women have been betrayed or misused here, particularly Ha, but it is a woman who apparently runs the entire operation, and despite the fact that she later dies in New York, the organization in fact does come through for her.
This is Ch’oe’s second point; that political organizations are by nature partially amoral machines regardless of the morality of their causes. Ch’oe first hints delicately at this. Besides Ha’s work in the print shop, she works on a completely pointless project, the translation into Korean of the works on an Italian historian written in German. This is nearly farcical and seems at least an implied comparison to Ha’s other “work.” But it is in the process of dissipation that the institutional immorality (and, certainly, a healthy dose of sexism) comes in. Kim Hu-jin, despite her escape at Ha’s cost, is apparently unsupported after the democratization succeeds and she dies of starvation (which is a theme that runs through the work). It is unclear if she even deserves to be “saved” in this manner, as it mainly appears to be the result of her relationship to An (love, also, takes a kind of a thrashing in this story). The contrast between An, the “popular” artist and Ha the semi-impoverished semi-scholar is a bit less definitive as Ha’s position with respect to the movement was always somewhat ambivalent.
In any case, in both stories Ch’oe lays on layer after layer of personal, political and social controls and interactions. Ch’oe’s work is custom made for discovery by one of the monitor-blinded class who are looking to write their thesis on a rich, but thinly covered (in English) author.
Despite that horrible threat? Two really good stories in one short book.