Book review: Song Sokze — The Amusing Life

by Philip Gowman on 24 April, 2017

in Book Reviews, Korean literature in translation

The Amusing LifeSong Sokze: The Amusing Life
Translated by Se-un Kim
Dalkey Archive, 2016, 233pp
Originally published as 재미나는 인생, Kang Publishing Ltd, 1997
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The most recent book to be discussed at the KCC’s monthly book club was Song Sokze’s The Amusing Life, a collection of around 50 short “stories”. None of these pieces will detain you for more than a few minutes – they range from less than a page to 6 pages in length. Accordingly there’s not much to get your teeth into here, and many of the readers around the table (myself included) did not have much to say about the collection, though undoubtedly it’s an enjoyable read.

Some of the pieces are genuine stories where something happens (In The Ghost-Catching Civil Service Guard, boy meets girl, they court, they get married and live happily ever after); others are the sort of satirical pieces you might expect from a satirical newspaper columnist such as Clive James (The Amusing Life 4 – On Exercise is a witty discussion of the different forms of sporting entertainment available to the rich and über-rich); others simply leave you scratching your head wondering what it is that you have just read (a transcript of an irritatingly chatty and vague TV Chef, or the piece titled simply ‘O‘ which conjures up an image of a conga of naked Korean soldiers each grasping the manhood of the soldier in front in some absurd daisy chain).

Song SokzeThe stories with a conventional narrative probably work the best: most of them are genuinely amusing. In Swim Class a lazy husband who is bullied by his wife into taking swimming classes finds that he enjoys them more than anticipated; the love story mentioned above is also a ghost story with an unexpected ending; and some of them feel like a fable you might tell to child – for example The Amusing Life 3 – On Violence tells the story of a boy who gets beaten up once at school and who eventually becomes an champion sprinter because of his subsequent alacrity in fleeing potentially violent situations – the moral being presumably that something positive can be taken from even the most painful.

Song Sokze is better known for his poetry but these fun and insubstantial pieces are a perfect antidote for those who find some Korean writers too full of angst and depression. I’m sure the author would not mind if you were to keep this volume in the smallest room the house to entertain you while your body performs its necessary daily functions (indeed, the 13-line item Surveillance is perfect for such a situation, describing the sort of graffiti you find in a public toilet). Alternatively, it’s an ideal book to keep you amused on the daily commute.

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