Book review: Waxen Wings

by Philip Gowman on 4 May, 2017

in Book Reviews, Korean literature in translation

Waxen Wings: The ACTA Koreana Anthology of Short Fiction from Korea
Edited by Bruce Fulton
Koryo Press, 2011, 238pp
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There are plenty of anthologies of Korean translated fiction available, and many of them are edited and / or translated by Bruce Fulton, usually with Ju-Chan Fulton involved in the project too. I recently enjoyed the Fultons’ collection The Future of Silence, which reintroduced me to the format after an absence of rather too long. Encouraged to explore the various unread volumes in my reading pile, I selected Waxen Wings on the basis of a memory of an enthusiastic review from Charles Montgomery.

Like The Future of Silence, this book is arranged chronologically, with a useful and informative introduction from the editor. But while FoS covers 35 years of writing by female authors, Waxen Wings covers twice the time span and includes male authors. Two writers are common to both collections: Oh Jung-hee and Park Wan-suh. The earliest story is a colonial-era work dating from 1936 by Yi Hyo-seok of Buckwheat fame, and the collection closes with a lively work from 2006 by Kim Jung-hyeok.

Yi Hyo-seok’s In the Mountains (1936, tr Young-ji Kang) is a gentle rural idyll in which a farmhand, made jobless by the local landlord, makes his home in the mountains where he feels part of the land. There’s nothing much to grab the attention here, and fortunately we are soon on to the second tale, which is much more meaty and at the same time entertaining.

In a story told in an informal, conspiratorial style Chae Mansik introduces us to Constable Maeng (1946, tr Joel Stevenson), an easy going man who never took too much advantage of his privileged status under Japanese rule, and his shrewish wife who wishes he had been more grasping of the opportunities for enrichment. Forced to resume his public service after a brief post-liberation retirement, he finds that the quality of constable in service under the new regime is now better. This is an engagingly painted sketch, which humorously illuminates life in mid 1940s Seoul.

Oh Jung-hee’s Weaver Woman (1970, tr Miseli Jeon) is a poetic but elusive first-person portrait of a woman who is distanced from her husband by failing to bear him a child.

Park Wan-suh’s We Teach Shame (1974, tr Teresa Kim) has a chatty narrator who, as she approaches her fourties, and on her third husband, hates the materialism with which everyone she encounters seems to be consumed.

The longest of the stories in this collection is Kim Wonil’s Prison of the Heart (1990, tr Michael Finch). For me, there is an overdose of political discourse in this story as two brothers discuss the future of socialism in the age of Gorbachev’s perestroika. Although the political passages are lengthy, they perhaps give context to the life of the younger brother in particular, who is a passionate supporter of the poor and underprivileged, a cause which has landed him in jail more than once. But, given his long experiences as prisoner of a developmental dictatorship, the choice of title for this story is puzzling. The phrase itself is used twice in the story, and both times “a prison of the heart” is a refuge, a place of retreat and safety. These reservations notwithstanding, the story is an interesting and at times moving portrait of a man and his family campaigning for what he believes.

The Pager

The cover of the Korean edition of Kim Young-ha’s The Pager

I loved Kim Young-ha’s The Pager (호출, 1996, tr Dafna Zur). What a great idea for a story, to have a shy guy, who fancies a girl in the subway, pass her his pager as he steps out of the tube saying “it’s set to vibrate. Please, carry it on you at all times.” She was certainly intrigued, and the scenario makes for some interesting scene-painting, with a great twist at the end. This is one of the most entertaining short stories I have read.

Ha Seongnan’s Waxen Wings (1999, tr Janet Hong) is perhaps the hardest story to assess. A young girl is obsessed with flying, and pursues her obsession via becoming a gymnast specialising in the asymmetric bars. When she is unable to compete any more she has to find another outlet for her passion. In summary, it’s a rather dispiriting tale of shattered dreams, much as Icarus plummeted back down to earth because he flew too high.

Pyun Hye-young’s Corpses (2004, tr Cindy Chen) is a gruesome and surreal tale about a man who loses his wife when she gets swept away by the torrent when on a fishing trip. In the background is the context of a couple struggling to get by, and the mercy of landlords and property developers. Kim Jung-hyeok’s Glass Shield (유리방패, 2006, tr Kevin O’Rourke) is a hilarious story that focuses on the antics of a couple of friends who have a unique approach to job interviews. It’s not often that I find myself laughing out loud on a tube journey, but this story had me going.

One of the strengths of this collection is to remind us that short stories do not have to be full of trauma or tedium. I can’t bring myself to recommend the Yi Hyo-seok story that opens the volume. In his defense, Yi was prevented from writing about anything interesting by the Japanese colonial masters, but that is probably a good reason to move on to the other stories. It is nevertheless representative of a particular style of story-telling from that era and thus a valid choice for inclusion in an introductory collection. The later stories are in a variety of styles  and cover a range of topics. Three of them – Constable Maeng, The Pager and Glass Shield will either make you smile or even laugh. The longest one addresses social issues from early post-dictatorship Korea which are still relevant in the twenty-first century (for example the Yongsan tragedy of 2009) while Oh Jung-hee and Park Wan-suh address issues of family and society in their accessible way. Though I didn’t warm to the title story, I found Corpses, despite its gory subject matter, disturbingly and incongruously humorous, so that I’m looking forward to the publication of Pyun Hye-young’s The Hole, in a translation by Sora Kim-Russell, later this year.

So, while you may not be attracted to all the stories, that is the nature of an introductory collection. The editor provides suggestions for further reading by each of the subject authors, and readers will take up the recommendations that most appeal.

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