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Book review: Pyun Hye-young – Evening Proposal

Evening Proposal (Korean cover)

Evening ProposalPyun Hye-young: Evening Proposal
Translated by Youngsuk Park and Gloria Cosgrove Smith
Originally published as 저녁의 구애, Moonji Publishing, 2011

After the somewhat gory content of Pyun’s story Corpses – published in the Waxen Wings anthology – in which a woman’s body parts keep appearing, it was with some nervousness that I started reading Pyun’s An Evening Proposal upon its announcement as the text for the November 2017 Korean Literature Night.

I need not have worried. The literary critic who provides a brief essay at the conclusion of the Dalkey Archive volume describes Pyun’s world as a “Hardboiled Hell” – which makes me think of a bloodthirsty John Woo movie – but the only blood we find in these stories is from a paper cut. Instead, the tales are humorous takes on the monotony and greyness of everyday life, particularly for the cogs in the machinery of Korea’s economy. The stories share a theme of entrapment: office workers trapped in pointless jobs, trapped by their own actions or simply trapped by life.

I felt the same feeling of familiarity as when I read J1 Visa in Park Wan-suh’s collection Lonesome You. Park is not everybody’s cup of tea, but I thoroughly enjoyed that collection, as indeed I did this. What follows are some jotted notes to remind me which stories to go to when I return to this book in the future – which I definitely shall.

Pyun Hye-youngRabbit’s Tomb pokes fun at the pointlessness of some white collar jobs: the jobs themselves seem pointless (the particular job in this story is assembling new facts about a particular city and preparing a daily list to a supervisor, who duly puts it on top of a pile of papers). But more pointless is the fact that everyone in the office apart from the supervisor is on short-term assignment: there is no bond of human interaction between the workers or with the supervisor; because no-one will be doing the job for more than six months, no-one cares about it or about their co-workers or subordinates; everyone is just a cog in a machine, and in six months’ time they will move on to be a different cog in a different machine. The ridiculousness of this life is paralleled with the existence of a stray pet rabbit, who has clearly been abandoned in a park. He is picked up and taken home by one of these contract workers as a pet. But because the worker knows that he will be moving on in six months’ time, and will himself end up dumping the rabbit back in the park when he leaves, he forms no bond of care or affection with the poor creature.

The title story, Evening Proposal, follows a florist as he drives 400Km to deliver a free wreath, at the request of someone he barely knows, to the funeral of someone who hasn’t even died yet. In his mediocre existence, he seems to get pulled along by events, ending being trapped in a situation which becomes ever more ludicrous and impossible. Meanwhile at the end of the phone is the woman with whom he has a half-hearted relationship, usually ending up postponing their dates.

Monotonous Lunch follows the monotonous life of someone whose greatest daily risk is sustaining a paper cut in the print and copy shop he runs on a university campus. Each day is a copy of the previous day, even as far as the set menu lunch he eats in the cafeteria. He is so grey he even starts taking on the memories of an equally grey lecturer who works at the same university. Then suddenly, one day his morning commute is disrupted by a person jumping under a train.

Shall we take a tour bus? is another story about two office workers caught up in a preposterous situation. Their instructions are to take a heavy sack on a wild goose chase across the Korean peninsula: they know where they have to take the bag next, but it’s only when they get to that intermediate destination that they receive further instructions as to their next destination. As they carry out this pointless, inhuman task they begin talking to each other – engaging in the sort of human interaction that somehow they miss out on back at Head Office.

A walk in the forest is a much darker tale about a young couple moving to a new location when the husband gets a job transfer; the wife finds herself trapped by the new arrangements, terrorised by an over-enthusiastic dog in the neighbouring house and trapped by a rental contract with their boss’s mother. The husband meanwhile is trapped by his wife’s sense of entrapment, unable to engage in out-of-hours socialising with work colleagues because he needs to comfort his wife. Roaming the tangled forest outside their house is a menacing wild boar: nature threatens their ordered existence.

Evening Proposal (Korean cover)A lowly accountant is sent on a pointless international business trip to avoid being around to answer difficult questions from a team of internal auditors. His boss seems to be running a fraudulent scheme, having no sense of loyalty to the business owners, who seem to change all the time. The accountant is sent to a foreign city where “1 in 10 tourists get lost, and 1 out of 3 locals knowingly give incorrect directions just for the hell of it”. The Jungle Gym that the accountant finds in a park while getting lost reminds him of his childhood. He never liked those climbing frames, being afraid of heights, but he was expected to climb from one level to the next in order to conform with the other kids.  Just like work really.

Room with a beige sofa could almost be the script for a gruesome thriller. A middle-aged husband, gorgeous young wife and 100-day old baby are driving along a deserted country road. They are moving to Seoul, and the removal men will be arriving at their new apartment soon with their furniture. The car suddenly hits something. Is it an animal? Nothing seems to be there. (Isn’t that how The Mimic started?). It starts pouring with rain. The windscreen wipers stop working. They pull into a deserted petrol station for help, but they are greeted by a few ruffians who are smoking dope in the dilapidated office. The young men lustfully ogle the young woman – incomprehensibly, she has chosen this moment to breastfeed her child. You know this isn’t going to end well… the scenario feels like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Fortunately, the family get away undamaged, though their wallets are substantially lighter than before. But the husband, in revenge, makes an anonymous tip-off to the police about the drug usage.

As they drive away again their car breaks down. You wonder whether the ruffians will find out about the tip off, find the couple again and wreak a horrible revenge…

Meanwhile, the removal men have arrived at the apartment that the couple are about to move into. Their prized beige sofa, the only thing that will give them individuality and comfort, will not fit into the rigid, constricted boundaries of their living room. How symbolic is that?

The manager of a Canning Factory mysteriously disappears. The workers reflect on the monotony of his life, and of theirs. We learn that sometimes some non-standard items have mysteriously managed to be canned. In a nice cyclical return to some of the themes of the first story, we find that history is starting to repeat itself.

All in all, this is a collection which is perfect entertainment on your monotonous commute to your grey, repetitive office job.

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