Book review: Jung Young-moon — A Chain of Dark Tales

Chain-coverJung Young-moon: A Chain of Dark Tales
Translated by Inrae You & Louis Vinciguerra
Stallion Press, 2010, 199pp
Originally published in 1998 as 검은 이야기 사슬
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Jung Young-moon’s chain of forty-five dark tales are dark indeed. Not in a way that will give you nightmares, but in a way that makes you feel mildly uneasy. They inhabit a dreamlike world where the narrator is both painfully self-aware but inexplicably powerless; a world inhabited by characters that are mis-shapen  or otherwise odd: a dwarf, a hunchback, a talking camel. Sometimes, the characters are even dead, but still manage to retain a form of consciousness sufficient to communicate their thoughts to the author.

In many stories, the central character acts almost involuntarily, without emotion, like an automaton; without a particular logic, perhaps in response to a situation which itself lack logic; as in a dream, while his conscious mind seems to float above the action and comments on it as it happens.

This is particularly evident in the short story (Shooting Oneself) in which the man returns from a business trip to find that he’s been fired. He just accepts the situation with equanimity, then finds himself playing with a toy gun in the park, and finally finds himself pointing this toy gun at the newly elected President who for some unknown reason wants to shake his hand.

The character is driven along by forces that he simply accepts, even while commenting on his acceptance. Again, in Smile, in which a prisoner is released from prison and experiences his first hours of freedom for many years, the different levels of consciousness in the central character are highlighted to comic effect:

“Shall I go now?” I asked myself, as if I was asking someone else, for I had a habit of always asking myself for my opinion and permission before doing anything. As usual, I easily gained my consent, and so I lifted my arm and pointed forward with my finger, like a general ordering an assault against an enemy’s position. And with it as my command, I began to walk.

In some stories, things happen. But others are simply a character sketch – a character who could form part of a larger story, a noun without a verb. Such is the sketch of The Ill-fated Boxer, who continues his amateur boxing because of the initial thrill he feels before the fight, and despite his unfailing record of being knocked to the canvas.

In fact, some of the stories (including the one of the amateur boxer) feel like the opening pages of a longer novel, and it would be fun to run a competition to continue the passages into a fuller length novella.

Looming large on almost every page of this collection is the unusual use of language. A Chain of Dark Tales contains very short stories, from around 5 lines to around ten pages, and in every tale there are sentences which trip you up in some way, sentences which would be struck through by an editor who wants to give his readers an easy read, all of which lead the reader to conclude that the translation is intended to reflect a certain awkwardness or careful use of language in the original.

One story, of just over a page (Love for Family), is just one sentence in the English translation. This surely must mimic the original – no translator would be crazy enough to create such a rambling sentence unless it was there in the original text. The sentence lurches uneasily from idea to idea and clause to clause, and the final few lines are impossible to unbundle syntactically. The language seems to reflect the awkward feelings of the narrator, a sulky adolescent who seems to want to do violence to his family.

Some sentences are really striking, and I’m not sure whether they’re rather poetic or slightly awkward:

“How weighty but delightful it is to navigate a boundless darkness which commands that you board its endless drift”

is the first paragraph of The Endless Voyage, a four-page snapshot of a mysterious boat which travels endlessly picking up ghosts from harbours and taking them who knows where. On balance, that sentence falls into the “poetic” category. But there are other sentences which are just plain awkward:

“I, who now understood why the dwarf came, still wondered why he had to pick me of all ministers.”

comes from the first tale, The Death Bed Prayer, in which an idle minister is reluctantly dragged off to perform the last rites, only to discover when he gets home that his house has been taken over by a dwarf squatter who kicks him out. The hypothetical editor would surely have re-written the sentence: “I now understood why the dwarf had come, but I still wondered why he had to pick me, of all ministers.”

When reading translated literature before, yes, I have raised an eyebrow once or twice and wondered whether the slightly unusual use of English is deliberate. But this is the first time I’ve read a translation which almost on every page has made me think about the (English) language that is being used, and consequently also about what the original Korean is like. And it’s therefore the only translation I’ve read that has made me wish I was fluent in the original so that I could attempt to experience what the author was trying convey by his peculiar use of language. Whether I’d enjoy reading the original text or not, I don’t know.

When Jung Young-moon spoke at the KCCUK’s “Meet the Authors” session as part of the London Book Fair last year he confessed to not liking reading aloud from his own work. This particular English text purposefully is not an easy read. But it’s a text that fascinates, that makes you want to grapple with it, that certainly makes you enjoy some of the startling ideas it contains, and, what is probably the strongest recommendation of any, makes you want to read it again, even if it’s not the easiest thing to do.

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