As I recently noted elsewhere, at the moment I’m seriously bogged down in my Korea-related reading by a rather heavyweight set of prison letters which I’m determined to complete. The collection is akin to a diet of undercooked brown rice when I’d rather be eating tteokbokki (and yes, that’s another book I hope to read later this year). So in the last couple of days, as a change from that unremitting diet of wholesomeness I’ve snacked on a couple of short stories.
What a relief.
The first one was the wholeheartedly recommendable The Summer by Choi Eun-young. I loved her collection of short stories, Shoko’s Smile, published in English last year. And because that title is coming up for discussion later this month at the KCC I thought I’d supplement it by including the only other story of hers I’m aware of that has been translated into English in book form.
Bam! A girl, Yi-gyeong, gets hit in the head by a football. Her nose is bloodied and her glasses are smashed, but she promptly falls for the girl, Suyi, who kicked the ball. We launch straight into the action, and have a deep and rich story depicting Yi-gyeong’s side of the new and intense relationship that follows. It’s a poignant narrative about young love and a subsequent love triangle which eventually develops when the two lovers move from the countryside to Seoul in the hope of greater freedom. Tony Malone discusses the story in much greater detail, and suffice it to say that Choi Eun-young is now a writer that I shall actively seek out in translation, which I hope will be frequently.
In hunting for The Summer on the top shelf of my bookcase where all the small-format paperbacks are stored, I came across Shin Kyung-sook’s The Place where the Harmonium Was and decided to give it a try.
I almost didn’t get beyond page 35. The first part of the book suffers from the literary device that is taken to infuriating extremes in the same author’s The Girl who Wrote Loneliness: politely put, a delicate prevarication avoiding what is clearly a difficult or traumatic topic for the narrator to address; more unkindly put, a tedious refusal to get to the point. In the first 40% of this brief story the sentence that resonated with me most was this: “your expression showed that you could make neither head nor tail of what I was talking about” (p35). Yup, she could have been talking directly to me.
Nevertheless I persevered, mainly because I had nothing better to read over a lunchtime sandwich at the office. And a couple of pages later it became clear what the subject was that the narrator was trying to avoid (which is more than I can say for The Girl who Wrote Loneliness) and suddenly the story took on life and meaning. And the passage that I’d just read from Choi Eun-young’s short story came to mind, because it expressed how my attitude to Shin’s story suddenly changed:
When the glasses were fixed and Yi-gyeong saw Suyi’s face for the first time, she was reminded of the first time she got glasses. The murky brown branches had turned out to have thin, gray stripes and white dots, and the green blurs of leaves unfolding on the branches turned out to be translucent chartreuse, with delicate veins. She could see everything clearly, but the floor had spun beneath her. She felt the same way when she saw Suyi’s face (The Summer, p 7-9)
Just as Yi-gyeong’s vision had suddenly cleared, and Suyi’s face came into resolution – with dramatic results – so when Harmonium‘s narrator finally comes out with what she has been avoiding for the previous section, the muddled pieces of the jigsaw suddenly fall into place and the hesitations and flashbacks begin to make sense.
The thirty-year-old narrator has returned home to visit her parents for one last time: she likely will not see them again because she plans on leaving the country with her forty-year-old married lover. But when she gets home, she has a flashback to her childhood, at a time when she was only seven years old, in which she recalls a 10-day period when her mother left the family house, supplanted by a strange but elegant woman: her father’s mistress. The mistress doesn’t last long, driven out by the hostility of the narrator’s elder brothers, and possibly by the realisation that no matter how hard she tries she can never be a real mother to her lover’s children including the narrator: this fact is driven home when the mother briefly returns to check on her 100-day old son and feeds him from her swollen breast.
The book is an extended letter written by the narrator to her lover explaining why she has now decided not to elope with him. Shin conveys brilliantly the narrator’s complex feelings towards her father’s mistress: she remembers her fondly, as someone who was gentle, fragrant, beautiful; someone who made her feel noticed and special. Outside of those ten brief days, her childhood experiences had been of total neglect in a household dominated by males and a mother too busy in the fields to lavish time on a daughter.
Countering those favourable feelings towards the glamorous woman is the realisation that mistresses break up families and bring unbearable pain to the wife. The narrator remembers two other women whose lives have been ruined by their husbands’ affairs. The last words the mistress tearfully imparted to the narrator before leaving the house for ever at the end of the ten days were: “Don’t… don’t become… like me… whatever you do…” (p77). The narrator desperately wants to follow her heart, and her lover, overseas, but in the end realises that it cannot be.
Despite the vivid portrayal of the narrator’s dilemma, I really can’t give the story a full recommendation. Particularly in the early section, the style of writing, with its repetition and over-use of the hesitant three dots, feels plain inappropriate. When did you last start a written sentence like this: “The river… river, always… always flows” (p17)? Yes, the translation is occasionally clunky, but the dots and repetition are there in the original Korean (p16: 강물은 …… 강물은, 늘…… 늘). The hesitation would work in dialogue or monologue, but this book is explicitly intended as a letter. (eg p15: “I wasn’t intending to write a letter like this”) and the repetition just grates.
Second, in the narrator’s loving and vivid descriptions of the food that the mistress cooked for the family, it feels as if the woman must have stayed with the family for a lot more than ten days, trying out different recipes to win over the hearts of her stepchildren. To be fair, however, the author prepares us for the hyper-detailed memories of that brief time with an introductory quote from a text by a naturalist:
“A duck’s perception is at its height within the first 12 to 17 hours from the moment of hatching. It retains the impression gained in these hours for the rest of its life” From Park Si-ryong, Animal Behaviour (p11)
So despite the slightly odd feeling of time slowing down, of ten days seeming more like two months, the distortion is explained by the huge importance those ten days had in the life of the narrator.
It was pure chance that I read these two stories one after the other, but it has been interesting to draw parallels between the two. Both titles tell the tale of a two-year relationship that has to end; in both cases the relationship is non-normative: same-sex in The Summer; adulterous in Harmonium. In The Summer, the relationship peters out in part because Suyi doesn’t or can’t talk about her feelings while the much more communicative Yi-gyeong, we suspect, simply wants to move on: both are, after all, only twenty years old. In Harmonium the narrator ends the relationship at great cost to herself because she feels it’s the morally right thing to do. The Summer captures the joy that young Yi-gyeong feels as she experiences the absolute rightness of her relationship with Suyi; Harmonium captures the pain of a slightly older narrator as she ends a loving relationship that cannot continue.
Harmonium has many strengths, and is a worthy addition to the “Women” selection of Asia Publishers’ 110-strong series of bilingual publications. And despite its stylistic shortcomings it leaves me with positive feelings. Charles Montgomery is even more positive. I have no such half-hearted recommendation, or caveats about the translation, for The Summer. Go out and buy them both if you can – which you can’t because Asia Publishers books aren’t readily available in the UK. I think I ordered Harmonium from Seoul Selection many years ago (or maybe bought it at the shop itself on one of my trips), and managed by fluke to pick up The Summer from Foyles when I suspect their stocks of translated fiction had been artificially boosted to honour their Korean Culture Month collaboration with the KCC.
Incidentally, I never did find out where the harmonium was: I read the thing twice and I swear a harmonium was never mentioned.