Sunday, 16 November 2014

'River of Fire and Other Stories' by O Chong-hui (Review)

Today I'm taking a short break from German Literature Month to return to my major project for the year, my self-education in the world of Korean literature, and this review looks at more work from an excellent writer I discovered this year.  It's a wonderful collection of stories, definitely a book I'd recommend - and it's rather pretty too :)

O Chong-hui's River of Fire and Other Stories (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press and Australian distributor Footprint Books) is a nice selection of stories from a writer described in the afterword as the current matriarch of female Korean writing.  This collection of nine stories is a kind of retrospective, a journey through her writing career, from her very first attempt at being published in the late sixties right up to a story from the mid-nineties.

It begins with 'The Toy Shop Woman', O's debut piece and one which won the 1968 New Writers Award.  The story follows a young, emotionally-scarred woman as she raids a classroom for money and objects to sell, before walking to an old toy shop.  As is to become O's trademark, the story slowly widens the scope, allowing the reader to see what has brought her to this point, a story of family hardship - and a collection of dolls.  A clever, female-centred, multi-layered tale, it's very different to a lot of Korean writing

This female focus continues in the following stories, each of which features a housewife trapped in a dull relationship.  In 'One Spring Day', a woman waits for a husband to return to their run-down home, a place of both comfort and boredom:
"Peace filled our home, imbued my relationship with Sungu, a peace absolute and invulnerable in which no leaf on a tree could be disturbed.  But what had I sacrificed for it?  Our relationship was like stagnant water - stale, peaceful."
'One Spring Day', p.18 (Columbia University Press, 2012)
Things are very similar in 'A Portrait of Magnolias', in which a woman with a troubled past attempts to move on from her cheating husband.  Sadly, post-separation life is no better than the sad time she spent as a housewife.

In the title story, a couple find themselves trapped in a working-class existence, and while the wife does her best to keep things together, the man is only too eager to escape each night, unable to stand life in the apartment:
Even though he took an artisan's pride in his work, I was surprised at the loathing I detected in his voice.
  "All I ever hear is the machine, whether I'm at home or on the bus.  I feel like the pedals are attached to my ears.  Sometimes I think I'm going crazy.  Your breathing at night - that gets me thinking of the machine too.  It really bothers me - I don't want to be stuck in a cage like a squirrel turning a wheel for the rest of my life."
'River of Fire', p.59
The pressure of monotonous work is crushing him, and his only outlet for the stress is a rather unusual one...

A later story, 'Morning Star', has a slightly different style.  It relates a night out with five old university friends, reunited after years apart.  The five are now middle-aged, each with their own families, jobs and disappointments, and the evening on the town, followed by a night spent drinking at home, allows the five to see how their lives have changed over the years - not always for the better.  O switches the viewpoint between the characters, allowing the reader to see what each thinks of the others (it's not always positive).

It's in the longer, later stories that O really impresses, though.  The broader canvas lets her develop the stories at a slower pace, also allowing her to insert a more detailed back story.  In addition, these later, longer stories can be slightly edgier and more political.  'Lake P'aro', a story I first read earlier this year, is a perfect example of this.  A middle-aged woman goes on a journey to a recently drained lake, seeking inspiration for her writing.  This pleasant excursion is gradually overtaken by flashbacks to the woman's life in America, where her family moved after her teacher husband was fired for reasons unknown.  The different strata of Korean history are shown in the buildings uncovered in the lake - rocks from the Kingdom of Koguryo, rice fields from the colonial period, roads from the military regime.  The moral of the story seems to be that all political systems are eventually outlasted by the stones...

This idea of the contrast between present-day life and the distant past appears again in 'Fireworks'.  This one is a particularly good story describing a day in the life of a family, a day on which an event celebrating their town's 'promotion' in status to a city is being held.  I loved the starting scene in a classroom, a beautiful description of a lazy sunny afternoon where the students struggle to maintain interest in the teacher's dull, date-heavy history lesson:
The teacher rose and methodically erased the blackboard.
 "Yi Yongjo, tell us about the founding of Koguryo."
 Yongjo stared at the blank surface, desperately racking his memory.  All he could remember was what he had read in a comic book - the story of Prince Hodong and Princess Nangnang, a magic drum that boomed in the absence of any human touch, and General Yon'gaesomun, who wore half a dozen daggers, who when mounting his horse used a servant's back rather than stirrups.
'Fireworks', p.98
Poor Yongjo has a preference for stories over dry dates, and it's this focus on real life over 'important' historical facts which permeates this charming story.

Earlier this year, I was able to try more of O's work: her story 'Wayfarer' in the Modern Korean Fiction collection, and several stories (including the excellent 'Spirit on the Wind') which you can find online for free.  She's very much a story writer, having written just the one short novel as far as I'm aware, and the forty-page story/novella seems to be where she's most comfortable, and at her best.  Over the course of her career, she's become a highly influential writer (and a very good one!), amassing an impressive body of stories concerning the role of women in society and the trauma of a country still healing its scars...

At this point, though, it's only fair to give a special mention to the Fultons, who are supreme translators in the field of Korean literature in translation.  As a married couple working together, it's tempting to compare them to the Pevear and Volkhonsky translation team; however, unlike P & V, the Fultons are bringing untranslated works into English and not just making American versions of Russian classics which have already been translated.  In addition to translating O Chong-hui's stories, Bruce and Ju-Chan have also worked their magic on writers like Ch'ae Yun and Cho Se-hui However, it's with O that they've really made a mark :)

A great writer, great translators and a beautiful-looking book - it all makes for an excellent addition to my K-Lit library.  O is definitely a writer I want to try more from, but sadly there's not all that much out there (she's a writer whose focus is definitely on quality over quantity).  Here's hoping I manage to stumble across some more of her work soon...

Footprint Books, as always, assure me that this book is available in Australia, either at bookshops or through their website :)