Yang Gui-Ja’s Excellent “Contradictions” (Review)

I previously knew Yang Gui-ja (her preferred Romanization) from the small book, Rust, which contained that title story and the accompanying Swamp. About these two stories I noted:

Yang Gwi-ja’s two stories in the book Rust, which is eponymously named for one of the stories it contains, are Rust and Swamp. If that combination of titles doesn’t let you on a bit as to what Yang is on about, you should probably go to the next room and turn on your television.

My summary was, ”Two good stories, melancholy modernization lit (as opposed to the antic version of Kim Young-ha or the suicidally depressing version of Cho Se-hui), well written and translated.” But the fact is the stories were only “good” and not excellent, with their flat stories and translation.

Now, across my desk (and across the Pacific) comes a copy of Yang’s book “Contradictions.”

And it’s a classic. Contradictions (Mosun), was South Korea’s best-selling novel in 1998, and deserved every bit of that. The title, however, is a bit too simplistic… in fact the book and characters contain contradictions upon contradictions as what originally seem to be mere dualities are revealed to be far more than that, and what dualities do exist combine and recombine to create an intensely layered story. The didactic contradictions that Yang sets up initially, are quickly undercut by the internal contradictions of which they are composed themselves. Culturally, the “contradictions” in this story are better understood in an Eastern way – that is to say that they are not separate, instead they are inexplicably intertwined, to some extent they are chosen and to some extent they just occur. Perhaps Yang expresses this best at her conclusion:

You can die only if you live. I still can’t understand such contradictions, but I can accept them. Life and death conspire with each other (162)

Our narrator is An Jin-Jin and the text helpfully notes that this is the Korean verb contraction for negation, followed twice by Jin, a Korean homonym for truth. Obviously, this means that things should not be taken at face value. An Jin-jin is a young woman attempting to navigate the many ‘contradictions’ of her life; from the fact her mother and aunt are identical twins who are far from identical; to the differences in their husbands and what that means, to An’s own choice of husband, between two suitors who couldn’t be more different. And these are just a few of the contradictions in the book.

Some of the contradictions/oppositions differences are big and some are small, but Yang always portrays them as functions of the characters. In one pivotal scene in which An Jin-jin and her mother discover that An Jin-jin’s brother has been charged with attempted murder, An and her mother react entirely differently. An analyses that, “mom and I were exact opposites. She heard only the word “murder” and ignored “attempted,’ while I just paid attention to the word “attempted” and ignored “murder” (84). This is an excellent bit of shorthand to describe two different reactions to the same event, one that explains the reactions and thus the characters.

As the novel continues, An further explores the import of the contradictions in her life and continues to wend her way towards a partially unexpected conclusion and marriage plan. A large sub-plot focuses on her father, his suicidal reaction to love, and competing (contradictory) views of what love is.

The translation here, by Stephen Epstein and Kim Mi-young is brilliant – the text pops and sparkles on the page. The explicitation (served in footnotes) is sometimes a bit odd. – when the translators note that Jin (truth), Seon (goodness) , and Mi (beauty), (names of potential daughters) are something like the English names Chastity, Charity, Prudence and Hope they add the odd note that these names have “come to be upheld as an ideal of femininity by such institutions as Ewha Womans University” (4). This makes me wonder where the translation funding came from. ^^

There is also a bizarre focus on the importance of knowing the Latin names of various flowers mentioned (one of An’s suitors photographs flowers), as if there is an expectation a reader will be sitting with Contradictions in one hand and a Field Guide to Flowers in another. Still, if you ignore the footnotes, the translation is brilliant.

The book also contains a foreword and afterword, both of which are worth mentioning.

The excellent foreword by Stephen Epstein warns that a reader should read the novel before the foreword, and that’s probably a good idea because if you do you read the foreword you will be a bit forewarned about the plot and given the blunt certainty of the title and the subtleness of what Yang does in this book, it is probably wiser to dive right in before it is all laid out for you. Epstein, perhaps goes a bit far at the end of the foreword as he struggles, maybe a bit too hard, to make all the characters political symbols, but in general it’s a great introduction, parts of which should be read after the novel.

The afterword is by the author, and is partly a reflection on dualities, and partly a reflection on being a writer. It is as well written as the book, containing such gems as: “As far as I’m concerned, ‘truth’ is like a hot soup that needs to cool down a bit before one can eat it. And that means in writing, truth goes with constant revision” (168)

Taken as a whole, this is one of the most satisfying translations of Korea fiction that I have ever read, and is suitable for readers of nearly any taste. Get on Amazon and pick this one up.

PS: This was such a good one that it led me to go on a little Internet Treasure Search, where I found a translated version of A Distant and Beautiful Place, a short story that is also brilliant and I’ll review it shortly.

13 thoughts on “Yang Gui-Ja’s Excellent “Contradictions” (Review)

  1. A feature of a review of a book (unless the book is clearly intended only for specialists) is to describe how accessible the book is.

    Would a general reader with no background in Korea find the book comprehensible?
    Is the book written in a style that makes the book easily accessible for a typical reader?

    There are many reasons why, for example, Ulysses is less read than Pride and Prejudice, and accessibility is a key reason. Both are undoubtedly literary classics, but their accessibility is far different.

  2. “Is suitable for readers of any taste” is a bit ambiguous.

    Does it refer to the presence or absence of offensive materials, or genre preferences, or….

    If a reader who only enjoys stream of conscious writing, (like Sartre’s “Nausea”) reads this, will that reader find it to be suitable?

    And, if so, will a reader who exhibits a strong taste preference for “cozy” mysteries also like it?

    It seems doubtful.

    Better to more clearly describe the genre and its level of accessibility than to force one to guess.

    In other words, describe the “taste” of this work, rather than pronouncing it suitable for all.

    For reviews, one must tell and not just show.

  3. Pingback: Yang Gui-Ja’s Excellent “Contradictions” | Nanoomi.net

  4. I think it should be pointed out – for the pedantic in the room – that “jin” is not a homonym for the Korean word for truth but rather the sound of a Chinese character that MEANS “truth.” This would be the equivalent of naming a character “Vera,” since “ver” is the Latin root for “truth” used in word like “veracity,” “veritable” etc.


  5. David,

    As a part-time pedant myself, I’m always glad to get a clarification…..

    Do all Koreans recognize the Hanja origin of this kind of term wherever it occurs (e.g. seon or mi or is it also recognizable as a purely Hangul item?

  6. Hi Charles,

    As long as you’re up for the pedantry, there is a special connection between Ehwa and the trinity of 진선미 (truth, virtue, beauty) as in their building the 진선미관 (see e.g. . Jin-jin”s parents were aware of that. I don’t think the note was determined by the funding 🙂

  7. Haerim appa,

    LOL – how meta is that? Explicitation that requires explicitation!

    Still, super job on the translation….

    Pretty soon I’m going to be able to put together a post about Modern Korean LIt that lists “non-suicidally-depressing literature.” and Contradictions will rank high on that list..

    I also want to get over to Yang’s restaurant in Hongdae, when I get back in country…

  8. Pingback: Review: A Distant and Beautiful Place by Yang Kwija

  9. Pingback: Book Review: “A Distant and Beautiful Place” by Yang Kwija | Nanoomi.net

  10. This was a very good read, and I’ve just finished the collection ‘A Distant and Beautiful Place’ which is probably better in many ways. A shame more of her work isn’t available – this is a writer a decent publisher could push…

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