The Portable Library of Korean Literature • Short Fiction • 10 • Jimoondang Publishing • Seoul
The Other Side of Dark Remembrance begins in the middle of a fugue state as a Korean salaryman wakes up and springs to his feet in perfectly unfamiliar surroundings. Hungover and thirsty he searches for something to drink and considers his usual morning ritual:
“He considered this darkness he enjoyed with his eyes closed during this blank waking hour a perfect ritual of peace for him. That’s why he made a point to relish this darkness during the morning hours when he was supposed to hurry, and eventually he would sometimes be late to the office or fail to keep an appointment.”
He quickly realizes he has misplaced a satchel containing which contains documents representing an economic windfall for his company. The narrator adopts a nearly third-person tone as he roots around in the memories of other characters to unearth his own actions. This is amusing, and his alternating panic and sense of acceptance about the loss of the satchel are also amusing to read. The novel is also an amusing introduction to the old-fashioned drinking culture of Korean salarymen (and ajeoshi). When the two men move from 일차 to 이차 (from “round one” to “round two” of drinking establishments) “just to gargle out the soju taste from the palate,” a reader with knowledge of Korean culture will chuckle in recognition.
As the narrator torturously recreates the steps of his previous night, he gradually realizes he is seeking not only the papers, but clues about his past (and he had been doing so on the drunken evening as well), the family from whom he was separated by the War–even his proper age, a particularly poignant thing to be missing in a culture like Korea’s, in which age determines all social relationships among men. In fact, in his drunken excesses the previous evening, he had remembered some elusive fact about his past, a fact that had led him on an unsuccessful journey of exploration.
As in most Korean novels of this kind, that elusive fact or memory relates to a tragedy of war and the narrator’s interrupted, now resumed, search to redeem a pledge and restore his family. The novel ends with a minor redemption and a reunion of sorts. Just what sort of reunion is kept intentionally vague, and the ending contain just a hint of the concluding plot of Oldboy. The redemption is not the necessarily the redemption the narrator wants, but it certainly seems to be the one he needs.
The translation is workmanlike, though it could have used one more line-edit. There is at least one sentence that is missing enough words to be completely free of meaning, and there is also at least one case of a sports allusion destroyed by a supernumerary preposition (“matters … he had to tackle with.”). But in general the translation is good, and I have to admit it was only on second reading that I caught the second of these errors.
The last thing worthy of mention is the canniness of the title, which is apropos on three levels and lends itself well to college level analysis of textual symbolism – if someone were to teach this book. First, of course, it applies to the narrator walking up, hung-over, the morning after he has remembered his past and then obliterated it with booze. In this granular sense the narrator wakes up on the other side of dark remembrance, although the memories have again been buried. This leads to the titles relevance to the larger story in which it is revealed that life has obliterated important memories that, inevitably, come back (despite the narrator’s ‘heroic’ drinking). Finally, of course, it is also a reference to the larger process that society undergoes in dealing with historical traumas.
The Other Side of Dark Remembrance is engaging enough as the narrative of a man having a very bad weekend, and its clever introduction of traditional Korean War themes, does nothing to dent this appeal.