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Book review: Kim Won-il – The Scorpion

The Scorpion - book coverAs a novel that traces the fortunes of three generations of a family, Kim Wonil’s The Scorpion has been compared to Yeom Sang-seop’s Three Generations. But while the latter novel is set in the colonial period, focusing in detail on the changes affecting the landed families over a shortish period of time, The Scorpion zooms out, spanning around 80 years of Korea’s history, focusing on the less privileged classes.

The novel’s central character, Kang Jae-pil, is a present-day gangster trying to escape his past. As the novel starts, is his due to be released from prison where he has tried to improve himself by a course of hard study. Having endured a difficult childhood, he has no love for his father, a giant of a man who abused and then abandoned his family. Jae-pil now seeks a purpose in life by researching the life of his grandfather Kang Chi-mu, who was reputed to be a significant figure in the anti-Japanese resistance movement in the1920s.

The Kang family are based in Milyang, and the novel is also rooted there, though Seoul features as the epicentre of Jae-pil’s gangster life, and the shanty towns of Ulsan are where Jae-pil’s father once eked out a living as a self-employed dog-butcher when an industrial accident put an end to his life as a paid labourer.

Various landmarks in the Milyang area feature prominently in the narrative, such as Pyochungsa temple and the Yeongnamnu pavilion overlooking the river. But Milyang is also known as the home of Kim Won-bong, a leading member of the armed resistance movement against Japanese colonial rule, well-known enough to feature as a character in Choi Dong-hoon’s actioner Assassination (암살, 2015). And so it is that the fictional Kang Chi-mu, Jae-pil’s grandfather, is caught up in the tide of history, first in the March 1st movement in Milyang, then joining the armed resistance in Manchuria before making his way back home in the tumultuous time immediately after liberation. In the present day, his grandson tries to piece together his grandfather’s life story from records available in the Milyang public library.

There is a mysterious gap in the records relating to Kang Chi-mu’s life, and Jae-pil eventually manages to fill in the hiatus: the horrific Japanese human experimentation laboratory in Harbin known as unit 731 is something that is shrouded in silence. Chi-mu had both personal and physical reasons not to talk about that phase in his life.

Kim Won-il maintains interest in the 80-year-long narrative by flitting backwards and forwards in time between the present day, the colonial period and also, in between, the life of Chi-mu’s son (Jae-pil’s father) Cheon-dong during the time of Korea’s rapid industrialisation. I sometimes found myself getting lost in the large cast of characters that a novel spanning the generations inevitably involves – and Cheon-dong’s womanising certainly adds to the number of names that a reader needs to track. But that’s a frequent problem I have with such novels, probably not helped by the fact that I don’t have much free time for reading and so tend to forget crucial matters of detail in between my opportunities to spend a few moments with the book.

If there are one or two pages where I found myself skim-reading – a description of the bewildering array of militia units in the Korean resistance felt more like an uninspiring piece of military history than a novel – Kim Won-il has the cover that this part of the book is the work of Kang Jae-pil, and a gangster does not necessarily have the skills to make interesting reading of such unadorned facts. Conversely, I would actually have welcomed more detail on the immediate post-liberation period, in which the author captures well the various nuances in political views among the leftists, in particular pointing out that it was possible for elements of the left coherently to support a short term UN trusteeship to enable the post-war dust to settle and the political climate to become less heated before unified elections could be held. As we all know, that was not what happened.

Undoubtedly the destruction of family looms large in this tale: despite the continuity of narrative from one generation to the next, each generation faces its own problem of dislocation and fragmentation, a problem which looks set to continue into the next generation in the present day, with the burden of holding things together usually falling on the women. Kim Won-il does not offer a solution to this: he simply presents the problem to us, one which has a bleaker outcome than say the struggles that the family in overly patriotic films such as Ode to My Father (국제시장 dir JK Youn 2014) faced and overcame. As Kim says in his afterword:

I believe that the course of the three men’s lives, though they might be considered unusual, represents what Korean society as a whole has had to navigate as it entered the modern era.

Also of note is Kim Won-Il’s foregrounding of mental health issues. Jae-pil is on medication and is very self-aware of the signs that indicate an impending period of mental turmoil, and takes steps to mitigate them where possible to avoid a more problematic attack. Other characters in the novel also show signs of temporary or chronic mental affliction.

In their preface to the novel, translators Sunok Kang and Melissa J Thomson introduce the author as one of the foremost writers of Bundan Munhak – literature of National Division. Charles Montgomery helpfully lists out some of the features that literary critic Kim Chi-su considers to be the distinguishing features of this genre, which includes “destruction of family, particularly for the young, and the post-traumatic stress disorder that this caused”. The Scorpion certainly fits into this picture of Bundan Munhak, but despite the fact that it offers little hope for redemption there is something in its honesty that appeals. This is unglamorous real life: while the Miracle on the Han is benefiting some elements in society, The Scorpion depicts the flip side of Korea’s modern history.

Kim Wonil: The Scorpion
Translated by Kang Sunok and Melissa J Thomson
Published by Kitaab International, 2018
Originally publisher as 전갈, 2007

Note: The Scorpion is difficult to find in your normal online stores. We purchased our copy direct from the publishers in Singapore.


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