Saturday, 19 December 2009

Lost Souls

Published by Columbia University Press as part of the Weatherhead Books on Asia series is this collection of short stories by Hwang Sunwon (1915-2000), translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton. Lost Souls contains stories taken from three of his short story collections from the 1930's, 40's and 50's. Hwang studied at Waseda University in the late 1930's, where he wrote the stories that would appear in his first collection, 'The Pond',(Nup). The story 'Adverbial Avenue', originally from 'The Pond, gives a snapshot of life for Korean emigrants in Japan, a subject returned to in another story, Sunggu evades the suspicions of his landlady, deciding to tell her that he's from Kyushu, in order to disguise his Korean accent, 'Scarecrow' follows Chun'gun and his observations on fellow villagers, in particular, Myongju, in a rural tale. 'Trumpet Shells' is a more of modernist story, with coffee,cigarettes and jazz, opening in a nocturnal sea side setting, two men talk of their first meeting with Wori and Un'gyongi, a saddening story of separations and the search of a reconciliation of sorts. This story in particular kept returning to my thoughts, blending melancholy, lighthouses, the sea.

'The Dog of Crossover Village', (Mongnomi maul ui kae), published in Seoul in 1948 was his second collection of short stories, most of them concerning post war era Korea, with the sudden end of Japan's thirty five years of occupation, on August 15th 1945. The title story, written in March 1947, follows a group of travellers as they make their way to Manchuria, they reach a remote village, and the narrative picks up on a stray dog in it's search for food around the village. At first the dog is kicked aside by some of the farmhands, rumour soon spreads around the village of a rabid stray dog, that has a blue tint to it's eyes (a sign that it's rabid). A hunt ensues, and some of the villager's own dogs go missing, fearing that their dogs have turned rabid like the visiting stray, on their return, the villager's string up their dogs and with a family from a neighbouring village have a dog day feast. The story ends up, being fable-like, telling that the stray dogs pups still live in the village, and I liked the way the narrative effortlessly moves from various perspectives.

'Lost Souls',(Iroborin saram tul), Hwang's sixth collection was published in 1958 and primarily looks at the Korean War and it's aftermath. The title story 'Lost Souls', is the tale of Sogi and Suni, lovers who are separated when Suni is selected to be the concubine for a neighbouring families dying father. Borrowing money from his mother and telling her he's going on a trip, Sogi and Suni run away to start a new life. Establishing themselves in a neighbouring village, a relative of the dying man recognises Sogi and along with other members of the family they confront Sugi, telling him that the old man has since died,and therefore he should be punished for taking the old man's concubine, deciding that cutting off Sugi's topknot is not sufficient punishment they decide to cut off his ear instead. The couple meet more misfortune as the story progresses, and by the end, the narrative again changes, ending this tragic story into a fable like tale, that has been passed down from generation to generation, perhaps it was.

Hwang Sunwon was both a modern and traditional story writer, often experimenting with writing styles and read translations of Camus, Hemmingway and had an especial liking for Shiga Naoya. Often likened to Kawabata's shorter fiction, reading these stories brought to mind the short stories of Ibuse Masuji, especially the stories with a rural setting, 'House', reminding me in particular of 'Old Ushitora'. But like Kawabata and Ibuse, Hwang's stories transcend their native setting and have a universal humanistic element, although his stories remain distinctively Korean. I'll have to admit that I've not read many Korean authors yet,hopefully next year I'll remedy that, there's alot of titles that I'd like to read, maybe a translation of Lee Eung-joon's 'The Private Life of the Nation', will appear. Reading 'Lost Souls' has been an excellent starting point to a literature that I've only just started to explore.

Columbia University Press

Korean Literature Translation Institute

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