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Book review: Kim Namcheon – Scenes from the Enlightenment

EnlightenmentKim Namcheon — Scenes from the Enlightenment
Translated by Charles La Shure
Dalkey Archive, 2014, 254pp
orignally published as 대하, Inmunsa 1939.

A brief review, because this is a book I never finished. The blurb on the back of the book sums the contents up well:

An account of seemingly trivial events – a wedding between two respected families, the arrival of box upon box of new Western products at the general store, a long-awaited athletics meet at a local school – Scenes from the Enlightenment: A Novel of Manners is the story of a country on the cusp of modernity.

Written in 1939, but set in 1910 or 1911 (Kim Namcheon was himself born in 1911) in a village near Pyongyang, this is a genial, slow moving narrative which focuses on two families who claim descent from the Milyang Bak clan. Those with the more authentic claim cling on to past glories (and a semi derelict memorial stone which commemorates the dutiful suicide of a young widow) despite their impoverished circumstances, while the nouveau Bak has acquired status in the village through wealth which he accumulated by astute financial speculation during the Donghak rebellion and subsequent predatory land investment. Such is the latter Bak’s status that he maintains two houses in the village – one for his main family and one for the concubine – and is given a courtesy title of Assistant Curator.

We are left in no doubt as to where Korea’s future lies: with the new money. But the author is not above poking fun at the initial vestiges of modernity: at the wedding of one of his sons, Assistant Curator Bak is happy for one of the groomsmen to be modern – but not TOO modern. Along with his “new-style cane” and “new-style glasses” the groomsman wants to wear a “new-style, civilised … flat cap”. Bak takes issue with the cap, which was “like some silly rice dish cover”, preferring a traditional horsehair hat for the wedding procession. The episode, intended to be amusing, comes across as rather laboured – maybe we are used to more concise humour in our modern texts.

Indeed, this is a novel for those who are not in a rush. It is a leisurely, pleasant read, packed with description and detail both of the external (for example the description of the various parties preparing for the wedding) and the internal (for example, a prolonged passage in which the bride on her wedding night wonders what her husband looks like, and ponders what the proper etiquette is before consummating the day: should you undress yourself or should you undress each other – all while your every move is watched by guests who have poked holes in the hanji screens to get a better view).

So, if you have time on your hands and don’t want to have to work too hard as you read, this is very much a gentle way to spend a couple of hours. I’m afraid I paused at page 60 and then skipped to the last 20 pages to see if anything was likely to happen. Maybe something did, but as one of Assistant Curator Bak’s sons strides of to distant Pyongyang, leaving behind the past (and one or two inappropriate romantic dalliances) and heading into modernity, I was happy not to dwell too much on the pages I had missed and instead to close the book and move on to the next one.

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