Kang Sok-kyong: The Valley Nearby

The Valley Nearby coverKang Sok-kyong: The Valley Nearby
Tr Choi Kyong-do
Heinemann Asian Writers Series, 1997.
Originally published as 가까운 골짜기, 1989
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Living in the country, Yun-hee is engaged in a solitary struggle. Her two worlds, that of a rural housewife and that of an advocate for equality, are at odds with each other. As her artistic, alcoholic husband increasingly cuts himself off from the world, Yun-hee must find a balance between what is and what could be.

The synopsis on the back of the book suggests a more action-packed plot than is the case. A chick-lit blurb-writer would probably describe this novel as a lyrical evocation of an artist’s life in the countryside, and that would capture the flavour quite well.

The novel in part seems timeless, but is historically grounded in 1979. It’s 60 years since the March the First Movement. Park Chung hee is about to be assassinated. The circle of friends around Yun-hee and her potter husband Hee-jo are peripherally involved in the minjung movement resisting the economic inequalities of Park’s Yushin reforms. There’s an energy crisis: the price of oil has just gone up more than 50%.

In the countryside, though, concerns centre more around how many of Hee-jo’s delicate punchong ware pots will survive the next firing of the kiln. Can the increased costs of firing the kiln be passed on to the purchasers of Hee-jo’s beautiful objects? Should he cash in an make a high-class range of tableware, or should he stay true to his life as an artist? Meanwhile, his well-educated, articulate wife tries to live close to the land, does her best for her family and tries to hold relationships together. A slight feeling of suspicion towards these former city-dwellers lingers among the local inhabitants.

In general, the book is well-translated, though as ever there is danger with non-experts transliterating Western names back into Roman script from a poor hangeul version: the great potter Bernard Leach comes out as Bernard Rich.

If nothing much happens in the book, it does not really matter. You can immerse yourself in the characters’ lives, enjoying their struggles with their art and their neighbours as the seasons turn. Kang Sok-Kyong herself was a painter before she became a writer, and her artistic sensibilities show through in this work.

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