Off to Battle at Dawn and The Elephant are both volumes from the ASIA Publishers Bi-Lingual Edition of Korean Fiction, and though they are about different eras and different people, both stories are about the same problem; the way capitalism has marginalized workers in Korea. As usual with the ASIA Publisher books, each of these includes essays on the book, historical background, biography, and excerpts of critical response.
Off to Battle at Dawn by Bang Hyeon-seok (translated by Dafna Zur and An Son-jae) is set in the late 1980’s when the Miracle on the Han was well underway and some of its negative consequences were beginning to be apparent. Capitalists and workers are set against each other, with a factory workers who are explicitly called out as nothing more than inputs in the system, and while the system might expand, even numbers of workers might expand, their paychecks never will. So, in a battle that is faced optimistically but may be doomed to fail, the factory workers go on strike against a company that marshals everything it can (including the striker’s own parents) against them.
The bulk of the story takes place in between the beginning of the strike and what is conceived of as the “final battle.” The final battle is never seen and what one critic calls “Tragic Heroism” is the point of the book. The workers, even as attrition whittles away their numbers, even as food becomes scarce and temperatures plummet, persevere in their attempts to win better working conditions. In a sense, the message of this story is the importance of camaraderie, and if the story ends with an uncertain future, at least it admits of hope. The story works along a line or resistance and ends, in a linear fashion, on the eve of the battle in the title.
Which is entirely different from The Elephant by Kim Jae-young (translated by Michelle Jooeun Kim), in which the central idea is not any kind of heroism, but rather the oue, or whirlpool in which all the immigrant characters, and one amusing Korean one, live. The whirlpool is expressed several ways, in immigrant on immigrant crime, the circle from Korean exploitation of Korean to Korean exploitation of immigrants, and at the end the tragic vision of entrapment in the narrator of the story, a young child of a Nepali man and chonsunjok (Ethnically Korean Chinese) woman. The story begins in media res, as the boy considers the house and community in which he lives, his position as someone with no position, and the sometimes literal whittling down of the immigrants (suffice it to say that fingers from more than one immigrant end up buried in the book).
Kim is a clever and expressive writer and her decision to include amongst the immigrants an older Korean man, apparently discarded by society, is a good one, as he is able to draw lines from the past, the time of Off to Battle at Dawn, and the present.
These books are interesting to read because they describe the same issue, as pointed out in The Elephant, of the economic lower classes being ruthlessly exploited by the overclass. In the case of theOff to Battle at Dawn, this underclass is Korean, by the time of The Elephant, the work has been displaced to non-citizens imported to do the “Three D” work of Korea.
These are two really good books, united by theme that the collection does not quite see. In this collection as The Elephant is in the theme “diaspora” and Off to Battle at Dawn is in the theme “liberty”. Still, get them both and read them as if they actually are considered in the same theme. Because they are in that theme^^ and together they make a very interesting read.