Book review: The Future of Silence – Fiction by Korean Women

by Philip Gowman on 27 February, 2017

in Book Reviews, Korean literature in translation

The Future of SilenceThe Future of Silence: Fiction by Korean Women
Translated and Edited by Bruce & Ju-Chan Fulton
Zephyr Press, 2016, 193pp
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When an unexpected book-shaped package landed on my doormat in April 2016 I eagerly opened it, wondering what was inside. I was slightly less enthusiastic when I discovered that it was a collection of short stories – I have endured too many frankly rather unappealing pre-war Korean short stories that I forget that things have moved on since then. Furthermore, I don’t always appreciate receiving review copies out of the blue: I feel obliged to read them and then guilty if I don’t review them. So as a way of postponing the guilt of another unwritten review, and of putting off what I thought would be my inevitable disappointment when I opened the covers, I placed the book on the reading pile, but half-hoping that something else would arrive before I got to it.

How wrong I was. Thank you, Zephyr, for the copy, and I’m sorry I waited so long to read it.

The Future of Silence is an updated edition of Wayfarer, also translated by Bruce & Ju-Chan Fulton and published in 1997. Some of the stories are dropped from the later book – Gong Ji-young’s Human Decency, Choe Yun’s The Last of Hanako and Kim Min-suk’s Scarlet Fingernails, all of which are available from other sources.1

The new stories included are Han Yujoo’s I Ain’t Necessarily so, Cheon Un-yeong’s Ali Skips Rope, a disturbing tale by Kim Sagwa and the title story, Kim Aeran’s The Future of Silence, all of which were written since the turn of the millennium.

The collection is a good spread, covering nearly forty years. My own personal favourites are the earliest and the latest of the stories. But each story, even Gong Sun-ok’s rather impenetrable The Flowering of Our Lives, makes you want to explore more from the author.

The collection opens with Oh Jung-hee’s Wayfarer (순례자의 노래, 1983), the title story of the earlier volume. The story is an intimate portrait of Hye-ja, a middle aged woman, now divorced, who is trying to rebuild her life and her network of friends after a spell in jail. She finds both difficult, and her friends seem reluctant to renew their acquaintance. We don’t get to understand the full reason for their shunning of her: possibly a mix of not wanting to associate with a jailbird divorcee who has seriously lost her looks, and partly because of something more old-fashioned – an apparent looseness in sexual morality associated with the events that led to her imprisonment. We see the world through Hye-ja’s eyes, as she makes her solitary way through it – and we are rooting for her to succeed.

Almaden Chablis

The American Chablis that gave the title to Kim Chi-won’s story

Kim Chi-won’s Almaden‘s eight pages from 1979 is one of the briefer tales in the book, and in its style is reminiscent of early Hwang Sun-won. Nothing much happens: a woman working in a New York liquor store develops a crush on a customer who comes in every day to buy the same cheap bottle of wine. It’s the sort of scene-painting in which Hwang excelled. Kim Chi-won’s strength is in examining the woman’s inner thoughts, her innocent fantasies involving the stranger which contrast with her pedestrian life (so pedestrian that in the story she isn’t even given a name) with her somewhat contrary husband.

Seo Young-eun’s Dear Distant Love (먼 그대, 1983) introduces us to Mun-ja, an outwardly unremarkable middle-aged woman who is walked upon by everyone she encounters in her daily life: but she shrugs off her daily humiliations because of the inner strength she draws from the knowledge of her relationship with a married man. But even her lover treats her as a doormat, and we are left wondering why it is that this enigmatic woman perceives things so differently from us observers: “she considered him not so much a man as the light of a spirit receding to a higher plane in order to present her with a greater ordeal.” Despite the woman’s perversity we nevertheless side with her and want her to make something of herself, and this is in no small part to Seo Young-eun’s tremendously sympathetic and natural portrayal.

Tony’s reading list is not a huge fan of Park Wan-suh – one of the few topics on which I disagree with him. I confess that I was lukewarm about Park’s autobiographical novel Who ate up all the Shinga (1992) but I loved her 1998 collection of short stories Lonesome You. Her 1974 short story Identical Apartments (닮은 방들) is an early work (her debut was 1970 with the novel The Naked Tree), and tells the story of a young couple with two children who start their married life living with the wife’s extended family in a sprawling old fashioned neighbourhood of Seoul where everyone seems to be in and out of each other’s house all the time. But this is the era in which Seoul’s poorer districts are being cleared and being replaced by apartment buildings for the aspirational and better off. The couple moves into one such block and begin to experience a different form of communal living in which each nuclear family copies and competes with each other to enjoy the latest middle-class consumer fad, as the gentleness and humanity in their lives seems to seep away.

If there is a difficult story in the collection, it is Gong Sun-ok’s The Flowering of our Lives (우리 생애의 꽃, 1994) which deals with mother-daughter relationships and the complexities of adolescence and parenthood. Its narrative style is perhaps intended to confuse, reflecting the central character’s numerous psychological contradictions, and when you get to the end you can’t help thinking that you’ve missed something while nevertheless feeling that there was something important almost within your grasp.

The next brief piece, Han Yujoo’s I Ain’t Necessarily So (나는 필경…, 2009) is similarly bewildering, but in a very different way. “My left hand is the king, my right hand the king’s scribe. Today the king is silent and the scribe awaits his orders”. Thus starts five pages of virtuoso writing of whimsical imagination and fertile word-play written in a style whose repetition of key phrases recalls the opening verses of the Bible. Paradoxically the story is an improvisation on the subject of writer’s block as Han struggles with the text of her first novel, The Impossible Fairy Tale. Coming to a bookshop near you in March this year, from Tilted Axis Press.

Kim Sagwa’s It’s One of Those the-More-I’m-in-Motion-the-Weirder-It-Gets Days, and It’s Really Blowing My Mind (2010) is probably the the most unexpected stories in the book. The only story with a male central character, it lays out the violent path followed by a junior salaryman who finally snaps. In a much more subtle way than Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 American Psycho we are taken on a blood-spattered journey with someone who finally finds the pressures of daily life and his upbringing too much to bear.

Cheon Un-Yeong’s Ali Skips Rope (알리의 줄넘기, 2007) is the portrayal of a plucky mixed-race girl, named by her father after the famous boxer. Ali has to navigate the inevitable bullying that faces an outsider, and the boxer is her inspiration.

Kim Aeran future

The Korean version of Kim Aeran’s The Future of Silence

My own personal favourite in the whole collection is the most recent, Kim Aeran’s The Future of Silence (침묵의 미래, 2013): a witty, poetic, thought-provoking snapshot narrated in the first person by, of all things, an extinct language. How does anyone come up with that genius idea? The story opens with portentous-sounding self-descriptions:

I am the spirit of the breath and energy released from a language at the moment of its extinction. I am a gigantic eye, a huge mouth. I am both singular and plural, a collective and its parts, a fog bank and its separate wisps… I am the volume of absence, the density of loss, the force generated when a light flickers on only to be snuffed out.

This elusive, poetic narrator then goes on to paint the picture of a kind of zoo populated by the last surviving speakers of dying tongues: the Museum of Moribund Languages. The story explores issues relating to the preservation of cultural heritage and the ethics of assembling a menagerie, pokes fun at the tourists visiting such sites but most of all celebrates the “immensely beautiful, colossally exquisite” diversity of languages. The text must have been a devil to translate: there’s even a credit in the volume’s preface for someone who helped the Fultons with all the technical linguistics terminology Kim Aeran uses in the story. It’s a humorous but melancholy way to close an impressive collection of stories.

The volume has a helpful list of further titles from the nine authors available in English translation, to encourage further reading. Because that’s precisely what The Future of Silence does.

Links:

  1. Alternative sources of the “missing” stories are:

    • Gong Ji-young, Human Decency: Asia Publishers (2013) or Jimoondang (2006)
    • Choe Yun, The Last of Hanako: Asia Publishers (2013) or in Land of Exile (ME Sharpe, 2007)
    • Kim Min-suk Scarlet Fingernails: in Land of Exile (ME Sharpe, 2007).

    all in translations by Bruce & Ju-Chan Fulton. []

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony February 27, 2017 at 10:26 am

Ah, I see you agreed with me on the best story, at least 😉

Philip Gowman February 28, 2017 at 11:44 pm

I really must search out Kim Aeran’s Christmas Specials – though Asia Publishers books are so difficult to get hold of.

Tony March 1, 2017 at 12:55 am

I reviewed that a while back, plus her newer one from them ‘Where Would You Like To Go?’ (which I preferred to ‘Christmas Specials’). I’ve been lucky enough to get some review copies of the bilingual books, but yes, they’re a bit tricky to get. Available on Amazon.com, but not for delivery in all countries…

Surely Kim should be the next writer to have some longer work translated into English? She already has a novel out in French…

Philip Gowman March 1, 2017 at 8:28 am

Oh yes I was trying to remember Where Would You Like To Go? I knew she’d written something set in Edinburgh. Thanks for reminding me.

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