The Man Booker International Prize started in its current annual form in 2016 and was famously won that year by Han Kang and Deborah Smith with The Vegetarian. Since then, hopes of a Korean repeat success have been kept alive with titles in the longlist (At Dusk (2019), Love in the Big City (2022)) and shortlist – (The White Book (2018); Cursed Bunny (2022)), but the greatest hope for another Korean win was, according to some, this year when Cheon Myeong-kwan’s Whale made it onto the shortlist. The night before the announcement of the prizewinner, rumours were spreading that Foyles had made a bulk order for more copies of the book, indicating that they might have had a tip-off that a win was imminent. Sadly, it was not to be.
Whale has had to wait a long time for its publication in English. It was originally published in Korea back in 2004, and according to the Asian Review of Books this is in fact its second translation into English. The first never made it into print. If there were concerns about the quality of the first translation, there are none with this one by Kim Chi-young: the English text sparkles with vitality and knowing humour.
The novel is populated with larger-than-life tragi-comic characters who make their way in a South Korea that is emerging from the Korean War. The story covers a few decades, and is set mainly in a town that has now disappeared from the map. The central character is Geumbok, a country girl with a strong head for business who exudes a strange magnetism that attracts men like moths to a flame. Her business ventures always ultimately thrive, usually in collaboration with her sexual partner of the moment, though the ideas and the energy are hers.
Other characters in the tale include Geumbok’s titanically strong but not very bright daughter Chunhui. Such was Geumbok’s promiscuity in that phase of her life, the identity of Chunhui’s father cannot be determined for certain. But she bears a striking resemblance to Geumbok’s giant-sized companion who died in complicated circumstances longer ago than makes it possible for him to be the true father.
Cheon’s narrative style is playful and entertaining. He often talks directly to the reader, commenting on how the story is progressing and speculating on what course it might take next, as if the action in the book has a life of its own outside of his control. When it comes to describing one character (a gangster who is Geumbok’s partner for the time being) he piles on the epithets in a two-line description of Homeric proportions which gets repeated seven times, for comic effect, over the course of a 23 page stretch during which he features as a leading character:
A renowned con artist, a notorious smuggler, a superb butcher, a rake, the pimp of all the prostitutes on the wharf, and a hot-tempered broker…
We welcome the description again, like a familiar friend, when the scar-faced man returns later in the book. At other times (in fact, 63 times) Cheon turns a knowing eye to his audience to comment on the inevitability of a particular event with phrases such as “this was the law of love” or “this was the law of capitalism” with the all-knowing authority of a parent reading a bed-time story to a child.
But most of the events in the novel cannot be predicted, and to a certain extent they follow little logic, often brought about by seemingly supernatural agency. What, for example, are we to make of the mysterious woman who can control bees, or of Chunhui’s ability to communicate telepathically with an elephant? Or of the dog who mysteriously survives starvation and and other calamities for year after year, tied to a pole outside the now derelict cinema with nobody looking after it?
How in short are we to read the book as a whole? On one level the life story of Geumbok could be read as an allegory of modern Korea, with her wealth initially coming from exploiting the fruits that nature has to offer, then a speculative and hugely risky investment in industry which eventually pays off though not before teetering on the brink of failure, and finally turning to entertainment, with the construction of a massive whale-shaped movie theatre. But if this is an allegory what are we to make of Geumbok’s gender transitioning over the course of the novel?
And the whale? It’s a beast which caught Geumbok’s imagination when she first saw it in the ocean when she moved from her past in the rural hills to live on the coast. The first love of her life was the size of a whale, as was her daughter. But should we also think of it as something valuable or even unattainable in life, as the Whale Hunting of Bae Chang-ho’s 1984 movie?
I suspect if you were to ask the author he would not wish the story to be taken too seriously. That certainly seemed to be his message, reading between the lines, of his discussion of his first novel to make it into English, Modern Family. Whale is an entertaining romp of a tale with puzzles aplenty to which there may not be any answers. Just enjoy the ride.
Cheon Myeong-kwan: Whale, Translated by: Kim Chi-young
Europa Editions, 2023. Originally published as 고래, Munhakdongnae, 2004