Two(!) reviews of Hwang Sok-yong’s (황석영) “The Road to Sampo” (삼포 가는 길)

Here at KTLIT we are happy to welcome a new contributor aboard, Dongmi Hwang. Dongmi is, among other things, bilingual and bi-cultural, and as an introduction, we thought we do some side-by-side reviews, so that readers could get dual perspectives on the works we review here.  Particularly interesting to me was the different ways we read the relationships developed on the road in Sampo.

In any case, here are our reviews of The Road to Sampo.

It’s a road trip!  Take two men on vacation, add a young woman heading home, put them on the road and let hijinks ensue!  Of course, nothing is quite that light-hearted in Korean fiction and Hwang Sok-yong’s (황석영) The Road to Sampo (삼포 가는 길) is in fact not a picaresque road trip, rather it is a reflection on the losses to Korean culture caused by the successful modernization of the economy, particularly the loss of “hometown.”The story begins with two laborers meeting on the road close to the jobs that they have just lost. Yong-dal has been caught in a dalliance with his landlady, and he and Chong (who goes by last name only) have just been let go of their construction jobs for the winter. With little else to do, Yong-dal decides to accompany Chong to Chong’s hometown of Sampo, and island town just off the coast of Korea.  At first, Chong and Yong-dal are somewhat diffident companions, but they quickly settle into a rhythm of talking, walking, and stopping in little towns along the way. In one of these towns they stop at a bar-restaurant that is in some confusion as the attractive young barmaid has run away. The proprietor tells the two men that there is a reward of 50,000 won if they catch and return the barmaid, and this is in their mind as they head out of town. Soon, of course, they do catch up with the barmaid, but instead of returning her to the bar, they all decide to continue their trek to a train station.

The woman, whose pseudonym is Paek-Hwa, like Chong, has decided to journey home. The three form a loose alliance, with a slightly romantic sub-plot thrown in, and become something like a team as they walk through the snow. Personal histories are revealed, and Hwang is a master at describing the scenery of rural Korea. Finally, the trio arrives at the train station and, has to separate. Here Paek-Hwa reveals one last bit of information about herself that completes the bonding that the trip has begun, and she departs on a train of her own. Chong and Yong-dal, then, wait for the train to Sampo.Which sounds fine and good, but of course nothing is so simple, and at the end, in a casual conversation, it is revealed to Chong that the goal towards which he is traveling does not really exist.The ideal rustic town of Sampo, like all of Korea, has been turned into a construction zone (amusingly, Yong-dal is thrilled by this turn of events, because he sees employment in it) and Chong’s dream does not exist.

The Road to Sampo is a vignette of the economic cost of development, with all three characters rootless and exploited. Even more, it reveals the psychic cost of development to Korea. The notion of a destroyed hometown is a devastating one in Korea, where one’s hometown (고향)  is an important place in a way that is not common in the west. Where one is born is a very common and important question in Korea, and westerners soon grow to recognize that word, as it is only of the first pieces of information that Koreans attempt to get after an introduction (after things like age, marital status, family members, and sometimes University – The Korean introductory script is actually quite rigid).To have a hometown destroyed is to suffer a psychological trauma of high order.

As the story ends, with a train pulling out of the station, the reader is left unclear as to what Chong has decided – the question of whether he is on the train to his ‘hometown’ is left intentionally open, and the reader is free to make his or her own decision.

That Hwang meant this to be a general indictment is clear by his use of the name Sampo for the ideal island-hometown. Although Sampo is a port-town in Korea, there is no island of that name, and as in Park Wan-suh’s Who Ate Up All the Singa (in which Singa is not an actual plant or food) Sampo is intended to be something like a Platonic ideal.

The translation here is good, and as in all books in this series, the book is printed bilingually, with biographical information on the author and critical analysis at the end.

The books is for adults, as sexual situations are explicitly described, although the translation has clearly tamed down the Korean language of the original (for example the Korean curse “개새끼” is kind of toned-down to “bastard.”

Another good book, the second good book in this series.

The Road to Sampo by Hwang Sok-yong opens  with adultery and it only gets better, or worse, from there. The two men we meet at the beginning, Yong-dal and Chong, are wandering construction workers. They live on the road and go wherever the jobs are. They decide to travel together, Chong is heading back to his hometown and with no other plans Yong-dal decides to keep him company on the road.A few hours later they are joined by Paek-hwa, a barmaid who made a living by prostituting herself, she has also decided that it is time for her to return home.The three walk together and talk about their lives. They share intimate details and face the hardship of travelling long distances on foot in Korea’s blustery winter.My initial reaction to The Road to Sampo was surprise. As a newbie to Korean literature this book was  an eye opener. I don’t know what I expected to find given that I have had almost zero exposure to Korean literature. I guess something closer to the popularized culture portrayed in dramas or through the pop stars on variety shows.Since the pop culture is so dishonest about the darker sides of Korean society I was really shocked by Hwang’s open and honest depiction of these characters who live on the bottom of a society that tries very hard to deny that they exist. My first time through this story I was not all that impressed actually. The only thing I walked away with was that the translated version of Hwang’s words was very reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Perhaps this was done on purpose since both men were trying to describe the world of wanderers.However, after a second time through I really began to take note of how Hwang bonds his characters. Despite circumstances that, in a more romanticized story, might be used to create strong bonds and undying friendship, Hwang keeps his characters removed from each other. Interest is developed, but there is no great passion that sweeps them off their feet. In fact, what he depicts is the very real interactions of three strangers who, for all that they share, remain strangers.I found this fascinating. – the intimacy created by circumstance and the isolation we create for ourselves based on past experience.The Road to Sampo doesn’t have the most compelling plot but ultimately, I enjoyed the book. Hwang is able to brilliantly write truth in his characters. It’s no wonder that Koreans enjoy his work and respect his stories.















11 thoughts on “Two(!) reviews of Hwang Sok-yong’s (황석영) “The Road to Sampo” (삼포 가는 길)

  1. LOL.. fixed the spelling of Sampo AND added that terminal punctuation to your comment.

  2. You fixed the typos but you added another one (학국 소설 should be 한국 of course). I don’t mean to be rude by pointing these things out but I’m afraid other people will be distracted by them (like I was).

  3. Great idea, and happy to find another person writing reviews (not that your’s aren’t great). From my experience, Koreans and non-Koreans seem to have very different perspectives and get very different things from the same Korean story, so it will be interesting to see differences here. Additionally, please keep writing in Korean, as it’s helpful particularly for the author’s name (given the numerous problems with romanization).

  4. Yes, but I don’t see a name attached to either of the reveiws. There is one on the left and one on the right, but it doesn’t say who wrote what. Or am I missing something? I’m guessing Dongmi’s is the one on the left.

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