The Rainy Spell by Yun Heung-gil is one of those rare “classic” works of Korean separation literature that manages to stand in its own right as a work of literature and despite some rather formidable hurdles on the basis of translation alone.
The story was written in 1978 and immediately became a Korean classic. 장마 (Jangma), or in a different English translation Spell of the Monsoon Rain (To be honest, that seems ridiculous from the Korean) focuses on a post-war family with two grandmothers and their shared grandson in the 3rd grade. The grandmothers agree to live together, but when the war comes the maternal grandmother’s son fights for the South while the maternal grandmother’s son fights for the Northern guerillas who continue to fight on in the South. This fraternal split also splits the grandmothers, although they continue to live under the same roof.
The family splits even farther when the “Southern” son is killed by North Korean soldiers. The young grandson, giving in to the lure of chocolate, reveals to secret police that the “Northern” son has been in his grandparents house, and at this point the entire family comes under state suspicion. The surviving (guerilla) brother is shortly captured. This drives his mother nearly mad and after a visit to a shaman she comes to believe that he will return to the house on a day the shaman has predicted. Instead, a massive snake appears and the paternal grandmother passes out in shock. The maternal grandmother soothes the snake and persuades it to leave. This event fits a shamanistic narrative – that the snake is the spirit of the dead son – and the grandmothers re-unify over this event, although one of them shortly dies.
This plot is custom made for Korean readers, with the family bifurcated to directly resemble the national bifurcation, but Yun handles this subtly and you don’t have to know the particulars of Korean history to feel what is happening within the family.
Perhaps my brief summary demonstrated the translational problem. Korean families have quite complicated kinship systems based on patrilineal neo-Confucian social structure. To put it simply, almost every relative has a different name for their family position,
based on age, sex, and whose lineage the descend from. And generally, families live separately based on patrilineal lines (with wives being struck from their official family rosters when they marry and added into the new one). But Yen needs the two families to share one roof. In Korean this is not a narrative problem – each relative has a separate title within the complicated Korean taxonomy of families.
Not so in English, where we are forced to string awkward (to English eyes) strings of nouns and adjectives together to represent key relationships. It is a testament to the translator. The redoubtable Brother Anthony of Taize summarizes the problem:
(The problem) is exemplified in the maternal grandmother’s question to the boy-narrator: “Do you like your maternal uncle, or your paternal uncle?” In translation, the question sounds awkward, but that is about the only way to render it.
It does sound quite odd, and at the start of the novel it takes a few pages to get used to seeing these awkward nomenclatures, but translator Suh Ji-moon does her best to render these smooth within the larger story and if they are an irritation at the outset, that irritation quickly fades away as the story starts developing.
This is a good book and one that does a really nice job of outlining the split in Korean society while keeping a less knowledgeable reader interested in the family story (it was particularly clever of Yun, I think, to put in the subplot of the little boy being tricked into betraying his (paternal) uncle).
Following my other interests in these books:
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