Book review: Jeon Sungtae – Wolves

Jeon Sungtae: WolvesJeon Sungtae: Wolves
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell
White Pine Press, 2017, 196pp
Originally published as 늑대, Changbi Publishers, 2009
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Jeon Sungtae’s Wolves takes us to another world – the world of Mongolia in the early years of this century, a decade after the adoption of capitalism. The country is modernising rapidly, but out on the steppes the old ways still have a foothold – shamans and traditional village chiefs are people of authority and influence; it is still considered improper to go hunting during the “Old Moon”. From there, South Korea is seen as a source of plenty – Mongolians want to travel there as students and illegal workers.

In return, South Koreans come there in search of the exotic, in search of escape: they come as tourists or on corporate team building exercises out in the steppes; they come to travel to poetry recitation festivals in remote cities (a major form of cultural participation in Mongolia, it seems); they come to scrape a living as hotel owners or tour guides serving the Korean market, or maybe they are on a break to write poetry. Meanwhile North Koreans come and go too: largely as staff in the North Korean restaurant in Ulan Bator’s Magnolia Hotel, where they have to entertain a largely South Korean clientele.

Jeon captures well the feeling of life on the margins, in a completely different environment from the daily lives of his South Korean (and now English-speaking) audience. Reading the early stories in this collection, one experiences a sense of loneliness and bleakness as one might feel when watching a Nordic drama on the TV. There’s also a sense of adventure and the unknown, in a place of exchange and interaction, where forbidden encounters are possible. One of the Mongolian characters expresses it well:

I got the impression that for both Seoul people and Pyongyang people, Mongolia was a third place. They learned about each other through us. (page 91)

The collection has ten stories, the first six set in Mongolia, the rest in Korea. In the Mongolian stories we are presented with a South Korean hunter who wants desperately to catch a prized black wolf in a narrative where everyone seems to be chasing prey of one sort or another. This, the title story, is probably the most complex in the collection, a tale that is told from the perspectives of many of the different characters, including the wolf himself. Another story (Southern Plants) paints the picture of a hapless hotel owner, about to be dumped by his rather more competent wife, as he struggles to grow sweet potato plants in his office – the plants seem to stand as a metaphor for the people in the story who seem unable to thrive either in Mongolia or Korea.

Jeon’s Mongolia is a place where there seems to be danger everywhere – from pickpockets and muggers to unruly homeless street urchins. But also there is kindness – a story (Korean Soldier) worthy of Pyun Hye-young (particularly her Evening Proposal collection) has a Korean poet on a short writing holiday suffering one unfortunate incident after another, managing to lock himself out of his rented flat, finally being helped out by some soldiers labouring on a building site. It’s a place where everything feels raw – there’s a feeling of loneliness, bleakness and sadness: hardship for the street urchins with nothing to eat; the difficulty of finding love; the harshness of the winter cold in the steppes. It’s all wonderfully depicted.

Later stories in the book are centred around the coastal regions of Jeollanam-do. Kids Need Money Too is a simple tale set among schoolchildren living in a small village near Nokdong Port, Goheung County – where Jeon was born; Has Anyone Seen My Shoes? is a tale set among old-timers on the island of Cheongsando, Wando County, almost midway between the mainland and Jeju-do, in which one of the last remaining farmers on the island who still ploughs the land with an ox has to balance his starring role in front of the TV cameras eager to catch the first signs of spring, and the need to find his new shoes which he mislaid in an epic bout of drinking the previous day. These tales feel like a more modern version of Hwang Sun-won’s country tales, with their deft character portraits and scene-painting.

Before getting to the two Jeollanamdo tales, we transition through the literal borderlands and join some North Korean escapees on their dangerous attempt to cross the Yalu in the bitter cold of winter. The final story looks at things and people on the margin: in a newly-developing city (is it the outskirts of Sejong City, or maybe Songdo?) we are introduced to a dodgy hagwon and its equally dodgy native English teacher – the tale starts with humour, poking fun at the crammer’s deceptive owner and the mysterious English teacher known as Gary. It’s quite fun, for anyone who has ever come across the blogs written by expat English teachers, to encounter a story about teachers from the Korean perspective. But there’s more to Gary than initially meets the eye, and this is a story that explores racial identity, prejudice and more than one kind of fakery. In this last story, appropriately titled Imitayshun, Sora Kim-Russell does well to convert the principal’s pretentious use of random English terms into Konglish.

Altogether this collection is an entertaining and rewarding read (particularly the Mongolian stories), and it’s a shame it hasn’t had more attention.

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