What a relief it is when a novel is both thought-provoking and a pleasure to read. Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk made me look forward to my daily commute (pretty much the only time I get to read).
The novel presents us with two parallel stories: the first follows a successful architect towards the end of his career; the second a young theatre professional, struggling to get by, at the start of her working life. Each of the stories is engrossing in its own right, but because the chapters alternate with each other you suspect that there may be a connection between the two strands, and so you are also driven forward by the desire to find out what the connection is – other than the fact that central characters in each of the stories have the same given name.
The story line that deals with the young playwright deals with themes that are familiar in modern Korean fiction and, sadly, in real life: the exploitation of contract workers, the problems of low pay, the rarity of decent, secure jobs and affordable accommodation, and the all-too-frequent occurrence of suicide in what has become known as Hell Joseon. If all that sounds a bit grim, well sadly we are perhaps becoming a little immunised to these themes; but Hwang Sok-yong deals with the subject deftly, and like Hwang Jungeun in 100 Shadows and I’ll Go On focuses on the possibility of human friendships and decency even when life is hard.
The story line that focuses on the successful architect is more unusual, at least in the universe of contemporary Korean fiction that has made it into English translation. Park Minwoo grew up in one of Seoul’s many shanty towns, the sort of place that features in Cho Se-hui’s Dwarf Launches a Little Ball. The sort of place that in the 70s and 80s were cleared as slums and replaced by anonymous apartment blocks that the former residents of the area cannot afford. The sort of anonymous apartment blocks that Park Minwoo, who managed to escape from the shanty towns, financing his way through college to land a decent, well paid job, has over the course of his professional life been responsible for building.
In his life choices, Park has been at best amoral, focusing on escaping from poverty rather than on maintaining his humanity. He has moved forward by calling in favours, by a certain amount of luck, by cutting his personal ties to his past, by choosing to stand aloof from the student protest movement in the 80s, and by being in with the “right” people – those whose immoral behaviour in indulging in corrupt business practices often make their way into newspapers and are now resulting in prosecutions. Park is thus far untainted by accusations of corruption, and we wonder whether that’s through luck or whether it’s because he has (only) just stayed on the right side of the law.
Park is just a regular guy who has been hard-working and lucky. Yes, he has been hard-nosed, but hasn’t Korea’s economic success been built on such determination and sacrifice? But as Park reaches the end of his career, and as some of his long-standing colleagues begin to fall to the grim reaper or to vengeful prosecutors, he begins to reflect on his past life, on some of the things that he has sacrificed. How much he regrets some of his choices we don’t know, but we know that some of his old certainties are no longer present – he admits he’s “like a man who’d lost his way”. But as readers, in the privileged position of being able to integrate the two story lines, we certainly feel regret on his behalf.