Jo Kyung-ran's I Live in Bongcheon-dong (translated by Kari Schenk, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is one of many short stories released in a fascinating range by Asia Publishers, a Korea-based press. They have had short stories by many of Korea's top writers translated and then put the English version right next to the original Korean in a beautiful little book. In addition, each book contains a short afterword by a literary critic and a biography of the writer along with some of their more notable works.
I Live in Bongcheon-dong was a nice introduction to the series, a story about a woman who lives in, well, Bongcheon-dong... The reader soon learns that this is an outer suburb of Seoul situated at the foot of (and half-way up) a mountain, and the story actually begins in the narrator's house, as she unexpectedly bumps into her father on the roof terrace of their house.
Looking out over the city, the daughter starts to think about her home for so many years, and the story she tells is both wide-ranging and personal. On the one hand, there's an account of the history of the area, explaining how rice fields and marshlands were displaced by apartment buildings in a matter of decades. On the other, there's an attempt to work through her relationship with her father, one which is inextricably linked with the place they call home.
The book is well worth reading, especially if you already have a basic knowledge of modern Korean literature. While the story of the development of Bongcheon-dong is clearly told, it's actually quite a subtle critique of the development of Korea as a whole. The suburb (whose name actually - optimistically - translates as 'supports the sky') was a haven for refugees, both from other parts of the country and areas of Seoul where the illegal residents were forced out during the city council's beautification projects.
It's a topic which is memorably covered in Cho Se-hui's novel The Dwarf. A rapidly industrialising country led to an influx of migrants and lots of illegal housing, and Bongcheon-dong, an area with a bad image, certainly had its fair share:
"In 1961, there were only 7,104 residents, but in 1965 the population reached 10,134, and within ten years this number tripled. The same thing was happening in several other areas on the outskirts that were being incorporated into Seoul. This growth could largely be attributed to the mass migration of squatters after the government decreed that non-regulation housing was to be demolished in the city center."While things have improved a little since then, there are still people out there who have nowhere else to go...
p.39 (Asia Publishers, 2013)
The narrator's relationship with her father is just as important a part of the story, though. The chance encounter on the roof which starts the book leads to a rare conversation between father and daughter, one in which she discovers things she never knew. This sets her off rethinking the past, reconsidering things she took for granted:
"A few hours later, I start reading a book borrowed from the Gwanak-gu district office entitled 'A Twenty-Year History of Gwanak', but I can't find any mention of sawmills. According to the records, there used to be a village called Bakjaegung where Bongcheon Central market is now. During the Joseon Dynasty, a hut called a 'jaegung' was built for the man who looked after a gravesite, so I wonder if the sawmill was built next to an old gravesite. And was Dad a carpenter from the beginning? Or, did he pick up the trade after settling here? The more I read, the more questions I have." (p.31)
While it's all wonderfully understated, the reader gradually realises that the narrator has had mixed feelings about her family and her home. She's attempted to leave Bongcheon-dong several times, only to fail because of her strong ties to the place. You also sense that she realises she doesn't have long to uncover the secrets of her past; there are several clues in the story that her father is beginning a slow mental decline. Her sudden need to research her suburb's history is actually an attempt to reconnect with her father before it's too late...
I Live in Bongcheon-dong is a fascinating story, and my only criticism is that the historical parts can be a little didactic. The narrator uses texts about the city and the suburb, and at times the story reads like a work of non-fiction, which slightly jars with the dreamy tone used elsewhere. Still, that's a minor quibble, and overall I enjoyed this a lot - and I'm definitely keen to try more of Jo's work :)
As mentioned above, this is just one of an ongoing series of books in the Modern Korean Literature Bilingual Editions series, with five sets of fifteen appearing so far (and I'd love to have them all if money were no object!). The only issue is availability. In Korea, you can get the books through Seoul Selection, both in-store and on their site. If you're overseas, many books and sets are available on Amazon (however, these are unavailable for delivery to Australia, so you'll need to check your local site).
And why is this so good for me? Because for the past few months I've been studying Korean by myself at home! Through a mixture of library books, Youtube videos and free online materials, I'm slowly getting better, and while this book is well above my current level, it's still good reading practice (I did manage to understand a few sentences here and there). Thanks to the publishers, I still have a couple more to try (stories by Yi Mun-yol and Hwang Sok-yong), and I can't wait to get stuck in :)