“The Poet of Wŏnmi-dong” (원미동) 시인 by Yang Gui-ja (양귀자) – Review

The Poet of Wonmi-Dong CoverThe Poet Of Wonmi-Dong (원미동 시인), by Yang Kwi-ja (양귀자 – Once again this series ignores the author’s preferred name, which is Yang Gui-ja as per the LTI Korea authoritative guide) features two rather remarkable characters, the young female narrator, the fifth daughter of a surprised and disappointed mother, and the insane poet of Wonmi Dong.Together, and apart, the represent a subtle, but disappointed commentary on Korean culture.

I should note from the outset that this story is in face a chapter of a larger book,A Distant and Beautiful Place, which is a brilliant and well-translated collection of short stories. To call them a mere collection, however, is to simple as, like Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf (and similar on more than just this one ground) A Strange and Beautiful Place is a yŏnjak sosŏl, or an intentionally connected series of short stories gathered together in a collection. These works were originally published in literary journals from 1985 to 1987 when they were published in Korean under the rather less interesting name 원미동 사람둘 (People of Wonmi-dong).
In any case, the Bi-lingual Editiion of Modern Korean fiction has chosen this chapter – vignette, really, as the yŏnjak sosŏl format allows each chapter to stand alone or be part of the greater whole, to include in its collection. A wise choice, as whenA Distant and Beautiful Place was first reviewed here, the review noted:

The Wonmi-Dong Poet is a particularly clever story, which forwards the narrative by providing a couple of character sketches and revealing the limits of loyalty. The story is narrated by a young girl, the self-confessed neighborhood know-it-all. …Yang does a nice job balancing the voice of the perfect know it all with the voice of a child who doesn’t fully understand adult goings on.

The narrator starts out unapologetically brash and clever, quickly running down her situation in life and how it has been arrived at; her multiple sisters, garbageman father, unhappy mother. She then quickly outlines the characters in the town and introduces us to the “poet of Wonmi-dong,” who also suffers under a slightly less affectionate nickname, Mongdal, which means the ghost of a man who has died before marriage. The narrator is switiching her affection, kind of, to Mongdal from Mr Kim the shopkeeper whose hopes of marrying the narrator’s beautiful sister have been shattered by her exodus to Korea and rich boyfriend, or serving as a plaything for the rich. This slightly upsets our narrator who had anticipated a marriage meaning that she would have larger access to the sweets and ice-cream at the shop. At the same time, through flattery, Mr. Kim is making Mongdal his working-boy.

As the story goes on it becomes clear that the little girl is a kid of know-it-all, often around when important events happen, perhaps flying under the radar, and often seeing surface social relationships for what they reveal beneath (there is one classic scene in which mothers duel through the accomplishments of their daughters). One night she sees something that changes several of her important relationships. In her social perspicacity, her description of Mongdal (clearly an ex-political dissident) and the behaviour of her neighbors during the climactic scene, the young girl innocently allegorizes some flaws of Korean society and politics. Yang is a clever author in that she slips the allegorical messages in so organically and subtly that they easily could pass the eyes of a reader in a hurry.

The final allegory, revealed in a poem, is deliberately ambiguous, so a reader may understand it as they wish. It’s a really well done book.

The translation is clever, often in the cleverness of the play it allows the narrator who mixes vernacular English, with phrases that are clearly Korean in origin, but also clear in meaning. It’s a nice tightrope by Jeon Miseli, a translator whose name had previously been unfamiliar to me.

Purchase Here

Publisher: ASIA Publishers (2012)
ISBN-10: 899400629X
ISBN-13: 978-8994006291

There are actually three collections here, “Bi-lingual Edition Modern Korean Literature Volume One”, Volume Two, and Volume Three has just been published. The collections are of 15 small volumes each, and each collection is broken into topics with the first collections comprising Division, Industrialization, and Women; the second comprising Liberty, Love, and North/South, and; the third collection comprising Seoul, Tradition, and Avant Garde
In addition, each story comes with a kind of critical summary, several bits of critical analysis, and a biography of the author. When these pieces are put together, it makes the stories much easier to read, as the necessary cultural and historical background is neatly presented to the reader.