The 2009 Yongsan apartment building disaster barely registered in the news media outside of Korea. But in its way it registered domestically much as the Sewol disaster did, acting as a rallying point against an uncaring government.
In the literary world, it was one of the seeds which brought forth Han Kang’s extremely moving treatment of the Gwangju uprising, Human Acts. As Han’s alter ego states in the final chapter of that remarkable novel,
In January 2009, when an illegal raid by riot police on activists and tenants protesting their forced eviction from central Seoul left six dead, I remember being glued to the television … surprising myself with the words that sprang from my mouth: “But that’s Gwangju.” In other words, “Gwangju” had become another name for whatever is forcibly isolated, beaten down and brutalised. (p215-216).
The incident had a more direct influence on Hwang Jungeun. In a book launch event at the London Review Bookshop on 20 October 2016 she revealed how she not only watched the incident unfold on TV, but attended the subsequent court hearings. The novel is her response to the tragedy, and attempt to give comfort and warmth to the families of the victims. She could find no way to describe their suffering and pain, and so decided that the only way was to look at the events through a lens of fantasy.
The fantastical element in Hwang’s novel is that as her characters are gradually worn down by the burden of their lives, their shadows take on an independent existence. They “rise”, gradually separating themselves from their owners, taking on bodily substance and eventually wandering off entirely. In this strange world it is the accepted wisdom that it is not a good idea to follow one’s shadow. We don’t find out what happens if you do, but it seems that sometimes when your shadow rises death is not far away. As the book opens, we meet our two central characters walking in the woods. A girl, Eungyo, has got lost following a shadowy figure into the bushes. We suspect, but are not sure, that it is her own shadow. Her friend Mujae helps her to safety.
The Yongsan buildings at the centre of the 2009 tragedy were designated as a slum, just like the mall buildings at the centre of Hwang’s novel. One Hundred Shadows is about the people who work in a set of buildings scheduled for redevelopment: the older generation who run the repair shops and spare parts shops because they know of no other life, and the young people who have menial jobs running errands for this older generation. Both generations are trapped by poverty. Hwang’s own father ran a repair shop in just such a building.
The novel follows the slow-burn developing relationship of the two young workers from the electronics market whom we meet in the opening pages. But Hwang doesn’t think of the novel as a love story. For her, it’s a tribute to the underclass who live on the margins. Even on these margins human decency is possible. Like the man who always puts an extra light bulb in the box he sells a customer. When this man passes away, the obscure, out-dated light bulbs he stocks will no longer be available; when the others pass away, people will not be able to get their vintage hi-fi restored. The slum houses a community of people who have been there for decades, going about their normal lives, not realising that someone, somewhere, had decided that their lives needed to be demolished.
In the characters’ dialogue, Hwang is deliberate with the use of words: repeating them, passing them back and forth, testing their meaning. “The voices of the slum-dwellers were not heard: they went un-noticed. So I felt I needed to be precise and careful with their words” she explained. In One Hundred Shadows Hwang has created a moving tribute to the lives and words of a group of people who represent the victims of the ongoing march of an unthinking capitalism.