After not really warming to Hwang Jungeun’s One Hundred Shadows, I nevertheless invested in the second translation of her work by Tilted Axis Press firstly because the press deserves our wholehearted support – and that means buying and reading their books – and partly because it was the set text for February’s Korean Literature Night at the KCC.
In the end, my evening was triple booked, which meant I couldn’t go along to the discussion. Which was a shame, because it’s a book I’d like to discuss (hearing other people’s views can always illuminate one’s own understanding). And the discussion was led by Diya Mitra, whom I have yet to experience as a moderator, but I have enjoyed chatting with her about some of the set texts in previous months.
Without having had the benefit of the discussion I’m really not quite sure what to think about the book. Diya reported afterwards that the book polarised opinions, one person flat out hating it but others loving it. For me, it’s just so-so.
I’ll Go On is certainly more mainstream, less fantastical than One Hundred Shadows, and it’s a gentle, pleasurable read. Two sisters, Sora and Nana, and Naghi the boy next door they grew up with, narrate their current experiences and their past intertwining lives. We get sections told from the perspective of each of the characters, often learning how much it is possible to misread the people closest to you.
Our three characters are never going to be rich: in their childhood the two families shared a basement apartment divided in two by an incomplete partition wall. But they “go on”, living proof of the same sentiment that was apparent from One Hundred Shadows, namely that even in the most impoverished circumstances people live decent, meaningful lives.
The girls’ mother, though, has a bleaker outlook on life (perhaps justified: her husband was mangled to death in an industrial accident)
Truth be told, there’s not a scrap of meaning to be found in this mortal, mortal, mortal world. Not an earthly thing worth the fuss. All struggling gets you is more grief and heartache. All that to-do, only to have life halt in some senseless tragedy, or to meet a slow, miserable, meaningless end, snared in an illusory murk of supposed joy and significance. (p12)
Naghi’s mother, also a widow (her husband buried under a pile of produce in the vegetable market) has a more positive outlook on life, and almost acts as a surrogate mother to the two sisters, while instilling in her son a love of good, simple food.
Two recurring themes caught my eye in the novel.
First, each of the characters introduces him or herself by explaining their name, in particular by reference to the hanja characters in which their name is inscribed in the family registry. Even those who live on the margins have a family history of which potentially they can be proud, even though in Sora’s case the entry on the registry was careless. And even though family is important, that did not stop Sora’s paternal family from seizing the cash from the industrial injury compensation, on the grounds that as Sora had no male siblings someone else would have to conduct the family’s ancestral rites.
Second, though not particularly relevant to the narrative, is the frequent mention of dreams: dreams that have predictive meaning and which are “meant” for someone, even though the wrong person might end up dreaming them:
I came across a beautiful danpung leaf [says Sora], its colour so radiant I couldn’t bear to look straight at it.
This was in a dream.
I felt a breeze and heard the maple rustle its red leaves, and then I woke up.
Perhaps the dream had not been intended for me, perhaps it was one of those dreams you have on someone else’s behalf… [P]erhaps it had been a taemong, a dream foretelling pregnancy… I looked over at Nana, wondering if it could have been intended for her. (p14)
Indeed it was, and Nana herself has all sorts of recurring dreams, all of which she interprets as pregnancy dreams, and which persuade her to keep the child (p151-153) even though her relationship with Moseh ssi, the child’s father, is not built on sound foundations. So dreams can have persuasive as well as predictive force. Finally, dreams can even have a physical presence:
There’s a dreamcatcher hanging from the rear-view mirror of Moseh ssi’s car. It resembles a circular spider’s web. The round frame is made from bent animal bone, and within is a delicate webbing of wispy silver threads… Dreamcatchers filter out bad dreams and let only the good ones pass; the bad dreams remain tangled in the web for the night, and when daylight breaks they turn to dew and evaporate. (p132)
So, why am I harping on about dreams? Well, I’m trying to figure out how to write something about Bongsu Park’s Dream Auction, a fascinating project that will include discussion, performance and, yes, the charitable auction itself. Submit your own dream into the auction process here.
So coming across this book at the time I did was fortuitous, and while I’m glad I read it on its own merits I’m even more glad for the dream material it gave me.