When reading Ahn Jung-hyo’s White Badge, I found myself wondering why, despite what I thought was my general antipathy to novels with listless central characters who can’t seem to find their way in life, I found myself connecting with Han Kiju in the opening chapters. I wondered, somewhat guiltily, if there was some subconscious sexism involved: maybe I’m fine with an emasculated male character sketched by a male author, but have a subconscious bias against disempowered female characters depicted by a female novelist.
Immediately on finishing White Badge, therefore, I decided to confront myself: to see if I could enjoy a novel by a female writer who in the past has irritated me (many don’t – read for example some of my reviews of Han Kang, Kim Aeran, Jang Eun-jin, Park Wan-suh and more). I could have tried some Bae Suah, but Shin Kyung-sook’s Girl Who Wrote Loneliness presented itself to me first.
I confess: if I hadn’t been determined to prove myself not a sexist I would have given up after about 30 pages. My heart sank as I realised that this novel had much the same feel as her much later novel, I’ll be right there (which I found tedious): a present-day (in this case, 1994) narrator looking back at the difficulties and pains she had suffered in her younger years (1979-82); a major traumatic event that needs to be confronted and narrated but too difficult to address. I tried to open my mind, trying to convince myself that the pace, tone and structure of the opening section was delicate and allusive, not self-indulgent and plain annoying. The constant repetition of the girl’s age; the restless flitting back and forth between 1994 and 1979 definitely had the potential to turn me off, but I found myself accepting her apology on page 57:
What am I trying to do by abandoning the most approachable form of storytelling? The truth is, I am not actually trying to do anything. All I can guess is that as I keep attempting my escape and then come back, I escape again, and then come back again of my own accord, as if the writing might somehow be completed in the meantime.
The first section of four ends on page 91, and for parts two and three the narrative gains in pace and interest: what we have is a semi-autobiographical account of her arduous, monotonous and solitary life as a factory girl. She lives in a lonely room with her elder brother, cousin and younger brother in a building with thirty-six other such rooms whose occupants they never meet – apart from one girl with whom she forms a particularly close friendship. It is the time of the Yushin dictatorship, with the economy geared towards maximising exports, and factories relying on the low paid workforce made available by people being desperate to leave the countryside to find jobs. Labour laws are flouted, unionisation blocked where possible and then membership penalised by management. The young girl and her cousin study at night school in a hope to better themselves, she wanting to become a novelist and the cousin having dreams of becoming a photographer. We live through the assassination of President Park, the brief interregnum before Chun Doo-hwan’s takeover, and the increasing violence of the state against an increasingly politically active populace. The central character’s younger brother becomes a student activist, but she herself is too poor and too busy to get involved:
What I really hated back then was not the president’s face but things like the knife refusing to slice through the radish that we had bought to make soup because it had frozen solid.
The pace starts to drag again towards the end of part three, and taking into account the author’s continued reluctance to confront the traumatic memory that she has been avoiding all this time I considered giving up at that point. But encouraged by one or two others who had completed the novel I continued. The final section does indeed finally address the traumatic event, though even here the knife-edge narrative is cut in two by a one-line flash forward to the present day:
I will not leave the desk, I tell myself . . . If I leave now I will not be able to come back.
The event is indeed traumatic, but with all the distracting metafiction that has been taking place you’re not sure whether this is “really” the terrible event that she has been blocking from her life for the past decade or whether she is still avoiding the event and has substituted something fictional in place of what actually happened: at her most recent visit to the publishers she re-wrote and then completely excised a completely different but equally traumatic event, just before the text got sent to the printers. Somehow the impact of this final section is deadened by the distance created by the flashback structure and the ambiguity deliberately woven into the present-day narrative.
The first section poses an equally difficult question arising out of the flashback structure. It seems clear that as she sits trying to write a book in Jeju Island, this is the finished book she is trying to write. If that is correct, what is it in the first section to be serialised that causes her to be deluged with interview requests, because she, the novelist, has become more interesting than her work? It can’t be the traumatising event that she has been avoiding, because that doesn’t appear until the final quarter of the book (and if that is a “real” event she could be expecting calls from more than just literary magazines). And it would seem of insufficient interest that she left the countryside to be a factory girl (which was something that tens of thousands of other girls did).
Perhaps it was the incident in which she manages to impale her foot with a pitchfork. On initial reading the passage had barely registered with me, and in retrospect I wondered why the author had included it. It seemed an unnecessary part of the narrative, albeit one that echoes throughout the rest of the novel as she constantly speculates about the condition of the pitchfork she dropped down the well. That constant returning to the pitchfork I presumed had some deep metaphorical significance but I couldn’t figure out what.
How interesting it is that two people can react so differently to the same text. What I had taken to be an unfortunate farmyard accident had registered with a Korean friend of mine as a deliberate act of self-harm caused by a desire to escape the boredom of the countryside. Maybe the original Korean text is clearer on this point. But on further reflection I wondered whether there was something much more sinister from which she wanted to escape: her cold relationship with her father together with the Freudian disposal of the offending pole in a deep moist hole suggested a darker incident, one that would certainly have the journos ringing up for a good story and which might also explain the author’s seeming preference for female company in the present day.
At the end of the day, though, I’m not sure I’m too bothered about solving the questions posed by parts one and four of the book. Looking back, I am on balance glad that I continued past page 30, and then battled on to complete the fourth and final section. But it is the central sections in the factories for which I shall remember this novel, where the pace quickens and the constant jumping between present and past becomes less of a distraction. The outer sections, for me, could do with an edit.