The Snowy Road is a brilliant story by Yi Chong-jun, one that seems to confuse Korean critics, and one that this reader was surprised came from a male writer.
The story is sad. A son, a particularly un-thankful son, returns to his aged mother’s one bedroom “mushroom” of a home. As soon as he is there, he wants to leave, based on the rather un-Confucian (and therefore rather un-Korean) premise that he owes his mother nothing and that she might be attempting to depart from that ‘reality. ‘
From the outset it is made clear that he always leaves his mother’s house early, and that even his wife knows he lies to achieve this. The narrator, of course, also knows he is a liar and admits it in a frank interlogue. Still, this scarcely bothers him, nor does his lack of filial respect. Even by Western standards he is a cad of a son. When he does offer his mother limited humanity (false teeth, a hemmorhoid operation), he confuses her polite refusal for a pact between them in which he has no responsibility for her. It is a triumph of Choi’s craft that you both understand the narrator’s stance and at the same time want to pull him from the pages of the book and punch him out for his solipsism.
As the story unfolds, his aged mother begins to express some desires. She cloaks them in the surrounding reality that the village is pressuring everyone (based on a government program) to rehabilitate their roofs. In fact, she is planning for her own death, and even more, planning for the comfort of those who attend her funeral. The narrator says: “My mother was not motivated by the idea of enjoying a new comfortable life for herself, but for those who would be left behind after her death.” (61)
The narrator, monomaniacal to the end, finds this concern, “preposterous.”
History, then begins to unfold, in a series of conversations between the narrator’s wife and his mother. This conversation sketches in the families’ loss of their home and status due to an (expired) older brother’s drunkenness, as well as a moving scene in which the narrator returns to his homeless mother who has finagled one last day in her old home, so she can entertain him there.
The familial anomie of the narrator continues to play out as his wife regards him with something like contempt and his mother continues to be stoic as she regards her position and her oncoming end.
The final scene is appalling and brilliant. All of the themes of the narrator’s selfishness, his mother’s unselfishness and sacrifice come to a head on the small floor of the mother’s ‘mushroom’ home. The narrator, self-absorbed till the end, ‘sleeps’ as he hears his mother’s version of an important day many years ago. The mother relates this tale to the narrator’s wife. She is so appalled she grabs her husband and shakes him. He feigns sleep, preferring to avoid his responsibility to the sacrifices his mother has made.
His mother goes on to finish her tale (that mysterious thing I’m not talking about here^^) and the story ends on a note that lingers somewhere between crushing and semi-triumphant.
As I noted at the outset, this novel seems to confuse some Korean critics, and I will merely quote the most representative example, from the book itself. The explanatory text, by Lee Nam-ho, says:
There are some mothers who are forced to ineffectively show their love due to harsh circumstances such as poverty, death, separation and war. It is these same mothers whose hearts are heavy with regret. The Snowy Road is the story of a mother whose love for her son became fraught with distress due to her poverty.
The last analysis might be true, but the first analysis seems positively perverse. This is the story of a mother who has drastically exceeded her poverty to show her love for her son. Perhaps it is a problem in the translation.
But worse, the explanation in the book makes not one mention of the horrendously un-Confucian (inhuman, really) behavior of the son.
As I sorted through the online reviews, I noticed this was common. At Hanbooks, at least they got that the son is a cad, but they conclude with, “However, he goes to the hometown on a vacation out of complicated feelings of both nostalgia and hatred and has an opportunity to realize the heart-breaking agony and love of his mother.” This is partly true, he does have the opportunity, but he refuses to engage with it… he “wants to intervene,” but instead he pretends to sleep.
He is, to put a fine line on it, a jerk. I think this is difficult for Korean critics to recognize or accept because it is so horribly wrong in a Confucian sense.
In any case, a grand book, sensitively written. The Hollym Modern Korean Short Stories series, from which I have taken this book, is a great one from which to begin reading Korean modern literature.