Pyun Hye-young: The Hole
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Arcade Publishing, 2017, 208pp
Originally published as 홀 by 문학과지성사, 2016
In the collection of short stories entitled Evening Proposal, Pyun Hye-young introduces us to a series of different very ordinary people trapped in humdrum lives, examining what happens when they are placed in unusual situations. Pyun seems to enjoy testing her characters, even humiliating them. In The Hole, we are presented with a similar theme, but on a much bigger scale.
Our hero is Oghi, a mediocre academic who happens by judicious selection of speciality to have got a tenured professorship. His wife is similarly mediocre, with early dreams of becoming a respected journalist that came to nought, as do all her other dreams. The pair of them muddle on in their mediocre lives, growing increasingly isolated from each other as couples can do, with the wife becoming increasingly resentful and suspicious of her husband, and her husband unable to communicate with her.
The book starts with our hero recovering consciousness in a hospital bed after a near fatal car crash, which his wife did not survive. He is paralysed, and needs round-the-clock care. Like the author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the only movement he initially has is the ability to blink. As if this is not enough of a nightmare, his only surviving family connection is his mother-in-law, who takes it upon herself to take control of his care.
The book follows Oghi’s long and costly attempt at rehabilitation while flashing back to Oghi’s past relationship with his wife and their respective families. As Oghi’s convalescence becomes more circumscribed we are presented with many unanswered mysteries. Where, for example, did his wife get her various items of expensive jewellery? What explains her obsessive behaviour and her sudden passion for gardening? What motivates the mother-in-law’s weird sense of family obligation and her own sudden passion for remodelling her daughter’s garden – not least by digging a massive hole in it? Why is she constantly muttering “save me” in the language of her Japanese mother?
As life for Oghi becomes ever more horrifically claustrophobic we are left hoping that, if we ourselves are involved in a similar car crash, the social care available to us is subject to better supervision by some trusted authorities.
And there are some mysteries about Oghi, too. Was his rise to professorship achieved without trampling on his colleagues? Was the marital infidelity with a student simply a moment of weakness or an example of his abuse of power? These questions are posed without being fully explored, as perhaps happens in real life too. There there are at least as many perspectives on an event as the number of people directly and indirectly involved in it.
Whatever, the tables are now turned. Pyun carefully constructs the oppressive atmosphere and the feeling of powerlessness that now traps Oghi – imprisoned both physically and psychologically – as the novel becomes more and more tense. What further indignities and deprivations can he suffer, as the mother-in-law seems to be gradually morphing into a vindictive version her daughter, taking revenge for injustices real or imagined? Pyun gives us a magnificently dark, mysterious and tense look at ordinary lives, worthy of a Michael Haneke movie.