Hyun Ki-young's One Spoon on this Earth (translated by Jennifer M. Lee, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a stylised memoir of the writer's early life. We begin with a visit to his birthplace brought about by his father's funeral, and as he muses on mortality (and how quickly life goes by), his mind inevitably turns back towards his childhood.
However, this isn't quite your standard Bildungsroman. Hyun's hometown was on Cheju (Jeju) Island, and he was born at a very important time in Korean history. No sooner had he managed to put the illnesses of early childhood behind him, than the whole island erupted into violence. You see, 1948 saw the Cheju Uprising, and the narrator's childish eyes saw some very horrible things...
In my recent piece on O Chong-hui, the translators (Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton), described Korean literature as a literature of trauma, and that's certainly the case here. Hyun is scarred by his childhood experiences, both by the illnesses he suffered and the atrocities he witnessed, but the trauma didn't stop there. In later years, he was arrested and beaten by the police for daring to write about an event which is still fairly controversial today.
The novel (if it is one) covers the writer's life up until he reaches the end of middle school, a point at which he considers his childhood to have ended. His early years are spent in a rural region of an island which is far less advanced than the mainland. While there is the occasional anecdote about playing with friends, much of the early pages make for grim reading. In an eventful first few years, Hyun manages to survive scrofula, a cholera epidemic and a fall from a tree where he landed on his head. The beatings and constant hunger are secondary concerns.
Part of the reason for Hyun's problems is his unsettled family life. His father, a wandering man who neglected his family, absent for seven years of his son's childhood, is yet another example of the common K-Lit trope of the deadbeat dad (as is the over-worked mother, beating her kids with one hand, feeding them with the other...). Another Korean cultural norm is shown in the refusal of the paternal grandparents to allow the young boy to join the mother at her parents' house in the nearby town, even though they have more room for him. His place is in the house of his father - even if his father is nowhere to be found...
The first few years of life are merely the build-up to the uprising, though, with the cholera and famine of the post-liberation years pushing the islanders to stand up to the mainland troops 'occupying' the island. What happened next was pretty disturbing:
"The attackers might have enjoyed the feeling of rabbit hunting, running after the people scattered in all directions in the snowfield. Mostly the old people, the children, and the women with small children who couldn't run fast enough were targeted victims. Mothers who beat their small children for not walking fast enough were shot, and their children were mercilessly bayoneted as if they were being skewered. I was told that the blood spattered on the snow was monstrously red. Mt. Halla was buried in the sullen clouds all winter long."Once the uprising has been settled, we move on to the Korean war, where Mt. Halla once again features, with planes targeting the mountain top for firing practice. These historical insights are fascinating, perhaps the most interesting parts for an outsider to read.
p.52 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
With the book being a semi-autobiographical work dealing with childhood, it's hard to avoid comparisons with a certain Karl Ove Knausgaard, and there are many similarities. Both Hyun and Knausgaard grew up on an island, and their books (this one and Boyhood Island) cover pretty much the same period of their lives. Both run wild, swimming in the sea and roaming the fields and woods, and there are even similarities in the description of slightly effeminate, book-loving young boys.
One Spoon on this Earth is not quite as elegant, though, and it's often clumsy and crude. The cruelty of children is a frequent theme here, and with Hyun's tales of torturing insects and butchering pigs, it definitely isn't a book for animal lovers. The writer is also fairly graphic with his descriptions of bodily functions, taking great pains to describe the exact colour of the snot dripping from his classmates' noses and where he went to masturbate in later years. As for going to the toilet, there's a passage in which Hyun describes what he calls 'field shitting', which includes wiping his behind with a bunch of grass - or on a warm rock. He then tells the reader:
"I'm sure you all know what it feels like." (p.94)Erm, no...
While there's much that's interesting about the book, it does have its flaws. It's rather repetitive at times, giving me the impression that it might have been serialised in a newspaper originally. The way in which it's written (hundreds of short sections) and the fact that information is often reintroduced a matter of pages after the original mention certainly gives that impression. However, there's another, much more serious, issue with the book...
Sadly, something seriously affected my enjoyment of the book, and that was that this is a really poor translation. I usually give translators the benefit of the doubt, but here there is absolutely no doubt about the quality of the writing. The key to a good translation, a fundamental requirement, is to make the translation readable in the target language, and that certainly doesn't happen here. There are far too many sentences which just don't make sense, and the whole text is packed with clumsy, clunky expressions. At times, it doesn't even read as if it was written by a native speaker of English.
So what exactly is wrong with the writing? Well, quite apart from frequent poor vocabulary choices, odd prepositional decisions and the occasional wrong pronoun (he v she), one constant grammatical mistake was the lack of commas in defining relative clauses, a lack leading to many absurd sentences. For example:
"My father who was in the mainland received the notice late..." (p.68)No, he only has one father... (and it's *on* the mainland)...
"And we received an urgent message informing us that my youngest uncle who drove a police car died in an accident." (p.46)Hmm - so how many uncles who drive police cars does he have?
It doesn't end there, though. There are some truly awful sentences, pieces of writing that I had to examine several times to make sure that this actually was what had been printed. Below are just a few of the worst (I could have added many, many more):
"For us children we didn't care about the speeches; it was fun to look at the speakers' expressions as they changed from pale to red and their ridiculously high-pitched voices." (p.54)Awful, I think you'd agree (and if you don't, well, perhaps you'd better enrol in my ESL class...). If you've been paying attention to the page numbers, you'll notice that this was all from a very small section of the book - after that, I just gave up taking notes...
"The vast and flat grassland that sprawled out covered in snow because the scenery resembled those chaotic days." (p.51)
"Soon after, a fire broke out and one hut after another got caught on fire and burnt down more than twenty huts." (pp.65/6)
I really don't like doing this, but the one thing that hurts the image of translated fiction more than anything else is bad translations - this is why many people avoid books translated from other languages (and why publishers hide translators' names inside the covers...). I hope I play my part in praising good translations and making people aware of the wonderful work people like Margaret Jull Costa, Philip Roughton, Stephen Snyder and Anthea Bell do - sadly, there are times, like today, when I need to do the opposite. Silence on the issue can't be a good thing, can it?