Having quite enjoyed two of Hwang Sun-won’s fuller-length stories – Trees on a Slope and Descendants of Cain – though without necessarily being enamoured of the characters of the stories they inhabited, I was looking forward to tackling Lost Souls, a splendid publication which brings together three of Hwang’s short story collections from different decades in his life (The Pond – 1930s, The Dog of Crossover Village – 1940s and Lost Souls – 1950s). I went in with tempered expectations, however, not being a fan of Hwang’s most famous short story, Shower (from 1953), in which boy meets girl, both get caught in some rain, girl gets a cold and dies. The end. It’s a story that just doesn’t grab me, and when I am told that it is a perennial favourite in Korea I am dumbfounded.
The first collection, The Pond, was written in the 1930s and for good or ill is the most different to what you might expect from a modern short story.
Taken as a whole, this collection represents story-telling as painting. These are snapshots, without much action or story. Characters are painted in particular situations or landscapes, sometimes idyllic rural villages, sometimes urban locations. Sometimes you have to admire the characters, who are enduring desperate hardship with resilience and maybe some dignity. But with others it’s hard to like them (the young man who alternates between kicking his pregnant wife in the stomach and having sex with her) and often impossible to engage with them or even care. Hwang lays his characters before us without comment, their behaviour presented with acute and precise powers of observation; but he leaves us to be the judges of whether they are acting morally, and he is not concerned with whether we like them or not.
I have to be honest. I really thought this first collection pretty tedious: I either disliked the characters, found the stories static or pointless, and most of them left little impression other than a feeling I had just wasted 20 minutes of my life. I had to hunt for things to like or find interesting about them: little details like feeling vicarious shock at a girl smoking in front of her tutor, or surprise that in the 1930s people were going jogging in running kit. Or I tried to make excuses for them: this is an honest portrayal of a Korea groaning under the yoke of brutal Japanese colonialism. Maybe so – in which case I’ll pass, thanks, and move on to something that feels more relevant to me.
Discussing this first collection of stories around the table at the KCC’s book club, there was a general consensus that they were crashingly dull, though one of our party enjoyed their painterly qualities. As we discussed Hwang’s uncritical presentation of some shocking behaviour in one or two of the stories, our wise moderator, who studied these tales during her schooldays, related how a favoured use of these stories in class was to prompt discussion about whether particular actions by the characters were admirable or not. I suppose an open discussion would be less easy if Hwang was obvious in endorsing or condemning particular actions.
I have spent too much time on The Pond. I should have just said: this is boring. Skip it and move on to the next collection: The Dog of Crossover Village. If ever I return to it, I shall re-read the two love stories: Trumpet Shells and Autumn with Piano, of which the former is the more intriguing.
The Dog of Crossover Village
Apart from the title story, which I and many participants in the book group found totally pointless (though Bruce Fulton does a good job of trying to give it context in his informative Afterword), these stories immediately felt more modern and relevant. They were published in 1948, though written in the couple of years prior to that.
The thing that struck me most was the first in the collection, Booze. A fascinating and totally believable story (yes, things actually happen in this tale) about the post-liberation struggle for control of a Pyongyang soju factory between the unions and a former senior employee. This story was written in October 1945, just two months after liberation, which seems pretty fast work.
If Booze feels like an eyewitness account of history unfolding, that trend is continued in Toad, which describes the life of refugees (from Manchuria, Japan and elsewhere) in post-1945 Seoul, and the desperate housing shortage they face. As in Booze we have a central character who tries to do the right thing but ends up going off the rails, again in Toad the protagonist tries to maintain his moral principles but also has to find food to feed his family – and the two objectives are not always consistent.
Similarly vivid stories are To Smoke a Cigarette, which again foregrounds the plight of people trying to get by in post-war Seoul, and Bulls, in which country folk take revenge against people who had collaborated with the Japanese. Both are interesting not just for the storyline but for the viewpoint from which they are told: in Cigarette the narrator feels obliged to help his former teacher but knows he probably cannot be of much assistance and is therefore dilatory and half-hearted; and in Bulls the story is told through the eyes of a young boy who is not quite sure what is unfolding in front of him.
The third collection, Lost Souls, published in 1958, continues the trend of stories with a storyline. Fulton comments in his Afterword that this final collection has more thematic unity than the previous ones: “The primary focus is moral transgression and the fate of an outcast in a highly structured society.” But for “structured” do not read “modern”. We are still in a world in which a father can choose to give away a daughter as nurse/concubine to a local landlord in exchange for some land (Lost Souls), or a husband can sell an unwanted wife into prostitution (Deathless); a world in which having your ear cut off is seen as an appropriate punishment for running off with someone’s nurse / concubine (Lost Souls).
The settings in this final collection are generally a rural, old-fashioned Korea and are therefore perhaps less immediately appealing than some of those in Crossover Village. But in this final collection is situated possibly the strangest gem in the book: Pibari, the story of a youth taking refuge from the Korean War in Jejudo and getting seduced by one of the Haenyo. This is a complex story to which I shall return.
Lost Souls contains five stories, of which only four are published here. Completists can find the fifth, Mountains, again translated by the Fultons, in the ME Sharpe collection Land of Exile (2007).
As an aside, three of the stories in this volume involve young lovers eloping together, with slim prospects of a decent future given that they have abandoned their families. In Autumn with Piano, the lovers (who are both musicians) plan a somewhat impractical future as subsistence farmers in the mountains; in Deathless the lovers have no plans other than escape, while in Lost Souls we see what can happen to lovers who reject and are rejected by their families – and it does not have a happy ending.
Overall then a very mixed collection, but nevertheless one that is to be warmly welcomed as an opportunity to get an overview of the output of one of Korea’s best-known writers of his generation, and one which is greater than the sum of its parts.
As an appendix, here are the rough notes I wrote about the various stories. I would read two or three at one sitting (for example during my daily commute to work) and then jot down my notes every couple of days. Where I have no recollection of what the story was about that obviously speaks volumes about the impression it made on me. In the first collection, the Pond, I really struggled to say much about the stories because most of the time nothing happens. So in some of the stories I focused on what I thought was significant in terms of social commentary. But as you can see, I soon lost interest in doing even this.
|The Pond||A young tutor and his female pupil. Interesting that even in those days private tuition to supplement school learning was common. Interesting for the sexual mores: the pupil’s father separated from the mother because of his womanising. The mother’s friend is ostracised by her family for marrying for love rather than agreeing to an arranged marriage. The girl is keen to experience boys, but her mother wants her to steer clear. The mother smokes in front of the tutor. Pupil’s father is now dying of some mysterious disease. Not quite sure of the social significance of the permed hair and green jacket… All pretty tedious.|
|Scarecrow||Sun glinting on olives – to the nth degree. Completely overburdened with spurious rustic detail.|
A 20-something consumptive takes a break from Seoul to visit his family out in the country. He lusts from afar after a particular country girl. A friend of his, a failed lawyer from Seoul, plans to divorce his country wife, alternately sleeping with her and kicking her in the stomach. “Like a worm that has been cut in half” – as if that is any excuse. Morose and depressing.
|Adverbial Avenue||Set somewhere in Japan. A Korean student steals from other Korean students. There is inevitable prejudice against Koreans, although in the story they seem to speak good Japanese.|
|The Players||This really doesn’t stick in the memory much. People seem to have enough money – buying vodka, absinthe, going to movies. Two guys fight over a bar girl. Another guy is in a hospital bed next to someone who is part paralysed. I really do t know what this was about. Basically a lot of unpleasant people not behaving very well.|
|Trumpet shells||Quite a touching love story, with a suicide at the end? Whatever, the men are pretty useless.|
|Swine||Totally pointless country sketch.|
|The Broken Reed||A dog eating bones in a graveyard.|
|Passing Rain||Models, a fishbowl, artists. Whatever.|
|The offering||Brief story about the struggle between old superstition, represented by the village headman, and slightly less old learning, represented by the village teacher. But why a boy should fall ill after killing his rooster is not obvious.|
|The Gardener||Completely unmemorable story about a man with a sick wife who keep a couple of pigeons. The male pigeon is kidnapped and held to ransom by someone in the neighbourhood. It’s a reasonably wealthy couple as they have a maid. Don’t really care about the cat.|
|Autumn with piano||A reasonably touching story about a woman caught in an uninspiring marriage who steals her best friend’s boyfriend. What is interesting is that the boyfriend is a concert pianist, and both the women are competent amateur singers. The woman’s husband is a trainee lawyer.|
Impractically, the eloping couple decide they are just going to live in a mountain village, farming. I don’t think they’ll get very far. Do we think the woman is committing suicide at the end? Or has she just taken sleeping pills?
|Mantis||Totally pointless story in which we fail to build any bond with any of the characters: someone called Hyon who works in an animal testing laboratory, the anonymous landlady, the young girl who looks down on the “opium-addict” boy next door, and the older girl who is probably a prostitute. Do we care about the goldfish, the rabbit and its offspring, or the cat? No.|
|Custom||Can’t remember anything about this story.|
|The Dog of Crossover Village|
|Booze||Astounding that this story was turned around within 2 months of liberation. A story about whether an arriviste, ex-security guard, who has been at the Pyongyang soju factory for years, should take over the factory on liberation, or whether the Union should control it.|
|The Toad||The ending of this was kind of predictable: country bumpkin taken for a ride. Set in post-liberation Seoul – too many refugees, not enough housing. A landlord wants to get rid of his tenants and needs a fake “buyer” to persuade his tenants to leave. What was more surprising was that he didn’t end up funding the cost of the house.|
|House||A man sells his land to fund a gambling habit. The purchaser swears he has acted properly.|
|Bulls||A group of villagers turn to organised crime to raid the grain stores of the nearby town. Seen through the eyes of a 10 year old who follows them over the hills. Memories of colonial times when the grain tax was incredibly burdensome and Japanese oppression brutal.|
|To Smoke a Cigarette||In the time it takes to smoke a cigarette a young man thinks of a Korean who had returned from Japan looking for work, but then had to stow away to get back to Japan.|
The main thrust of the story is a young man who feels obliged to find a job for his former teacher, who has fallen on hard times and has no marketable skills other than calligraphy.
|My Father||Something to do with the March 1st movement, but I can’t remember anything about this one.|
|The Dog of Crossover Village||A mangy bitch gives birth to puppies bearing a striking resemblance to other dogs in the village.|
|Deathless||A salt seller sells his wife to a Pyongyang brothel and hunts for another bride. The prospective bride elopes with a village boy.|
|Lost Souls||A young couple elope and then struggle to make a living in Hadong, Sancheong, Sacheon and Tongyeong, chased away by their families.|
|Pibari||A mother and young son, refugees from the Korean war, settle in Sogwipo; boy is seduced by haenyo. Memories of the Jeju massacre.|
|Voices||A man is traumatised by the Korean war. Comes back and is welcomed by his villagers, but he goes off the rails, takes up drinking and gambling, and kicking his pregnant wife in the stomach.|
|Mountains (in Land of Exile)||A very backward country boy (son of an untouchable) encounters some North Korean partisans in the mountains October 1951. He doesn’t even know what a plane or a gun is. He has had very little human contact and initially enjoys their company. As they turn on each other he has to make his escape, taking with him an added bonus.|
- Buy Lost Souls at Amazon
- I’m comforted to note, having spent ages writing the above, that Charles Montgomery has said it all already in his review of the collection
- Goodreads is quite enthusiastic, but the reviewer only talks about the two most interesting stories in Crossover Village and completely ignores the rest.