Three Voices at Midnight by Shing Sang-ung (Translated by Ahn Juhg-hyo) is an interesting amalgamation of internal stories. It is the story of a three-way love affair (not at all physical) between three men. It is also that relatively rare thing in Korean fiction as story about the Civil War as an actual battle. It is also a social story of a marriage in the post-war era and finally it is a peripheral look at the Korean involvement in the Vietnam War.
The book tells the story of three best friends So Chunhak, Yun Kyong and Pak Minuk, who enroll in the Korean army during the Korean War as university-enlistees. This status is preferred, among other things it allows a shorter service, but it also brings with it suspicion and scorn from the regular grunts. The story takes up as they are being trucked, nearly frozen to death, to their outpost on the front. Here the story becomes increasingly absurd, but in a good way. The point of this section is aptly summed up when one character notes that, “The fool who fails to become a fool in the army is the real fool”. And this plays out in a kind of reverse Catch-22 way as amidst stupidity (Yun Kyong is transferred away because his family is from the North) and disaster (which I won’t spoil, though one of the disasters is rather unlikely and they other one a clever surprise) the soldiers desperately do not want to get any kind of furlough. This first section is rather unusual for Korean fiction, which in translation has pretty much avoided general war stories, much preferring to deal with the results of war, or of personal relationships within the war, oftentimes featuring citizens or soldiers who are out of the war for various reasons; either lost, hiding, wounded, or running. Pak Minuk, the main point of view in the story, eventually ends up alone at the front, and when he is rotated out, he returns to his hometown.
Here the story splits into the domestic story of Pak trying to get into college to avoid being sent back into the army, his family story, his sporadic contacts with his old friend Yun Kyong, and an eventual romantic plot line. When Yun decides not to re-enter school and instead re-enlist in the army as an officer, a new plotline emerges in which Yun ends up in Vietnam. This section of the book is obviously not as tight as the first section and it becomes slightly less interesting because of that. While the wartime tale is tightly focused on issues of survival and insanity, the “peace”-time (War continues, it is just that Pak Minuk is out of it) tales are a bit dilatory and Shin falls into the “woe is me” (han, if you must know^^) narrative tendency that was common among Korean writers during colonialism, Korean War, and separation. Perhaps an inclination of this can be found in the fact the book begins in the Seoul National Cemetery and ends in tears. It is not that this woebegone nature isn’t earned, just that it is not always enjoyable to read and is somewhat predictable.
Some of the set pieces in Three Voices at Midnight are exceptionally clever. There is a scene in which Pak Minuk returns to his barracks after meeting his best friends girlfriend which is very amusing and the setup that gets Pak enough money to get back into university is straight out of a farce.
If I had stars to award I’d give this a 3.75 out of 5, with a very near to perfect score for the wartime passages.
Now the bad news. Apparently I purchased the last copy of this in the free world™. It is no longer available on Amazon. This book, and some of the Korean books in translation that vary absurdly in price, is the very reason that software like CamelCamelCamel which will watch Amazon for you and alert you to price changes. So, if you want to read one of the only semi-battle oriented Korean translations and a lot more? Set your Camels to watching and buy Three Voices at Midnight when it comes back on the market at a decent price (I think I paid less than $20.00 for my copy).