Book Review: Stories by Korean Women — Sad Brilliant Inventions
Themes of loneliness, isolation, disaffection, and alienation predominate, but what could have been excursions into monochromatic despair are elevated, through resourceful inventiveness, into exhilarating journeys.
The Future of Silence: Fiction by Korean Women. Translated and edited by Bruce & Ju-chan Fulton. Zephyr Press, 215 pp., $16, paperback.
By Merrill Kaitz
When I pick up a literary collection whose content is based on a category — say, one-act plays by Canadian scientists — I immediately make allowances for some unevenness. Such was my expectation upon opening The Future of Silence: Fiction by Korean Women.
But I have to admit I was taken a little by surprise by the consistent quality of this powerful collection. These nine stories pull off the feat of being both entertaining and moving, deftly managing both dazzle and depth. These authors have a great deal to say, not only about being a Korean woman, but about being human.
Themes of loneliness, isolation, disaffection, and alienation predominate, but what could have been excursions into monochromatic despair are elevated, through resourceful inventiveness, into exhilarating journeys. Some protagonists seem crushed by their struggles, while others find distinctive ways to cope. In either case, these stories achieve, in addition to sadness and sympathy, effects of wonderment and delight.
Most of the central characters are women, though one story is narrated by a raging psychotic male, and another, the title story, is told by a disembodied spirit.
The raging male story was the only one that didn’t engage me immediately. At first, the young man’s anger at the monotony and falseness of his job and family life came off as commonplace. “Where the hell does all this rage come from,” he asks himself. But the action soon picks up. Before the story is over, narrator has tried to become a dog, he has watched his sister turn into a pig, and he has murdered two strangers and his mother. The tale’s extravagant title — “It’s One of Those the-More-I’m-in-Motion-the-Weirder-It-Gets Days, and It’s Really Blowing My Mind” — turns out to be a bit of an understatement. Author Kim Sagwa takes her homage to Kafka way beyond “Metamorphosis,” and pulls it off.
Two of the collection’s quieter and more traditional stories are among my favorites. In “Almaden,” Kim Chi-wŏn portrays a young Korean woman who, with her inattentive husband, runs a liquor store in New York City. Her sadness and unsatisfied longing for attention, sexual as well as emotional, are expressed through the fantasy of a love affair with one of the customers, a man she thinks of as “Almaden,” because that’s the brand of wine he always buys. The details build quietly and powerfully. She watches couples buying their wine for the evening and kissing, unlike couples in Korea. At first she disapproves of the public intimacy, but she changes her mind. “Now she considered their behavior as a carefree, honest expression of their feelings.” When ‘Almaden’ comes in shirtless on a hot summer day, she learns about herself more directly: “…[W]hen she saw his protruding nipples, she felt a warm prickle in her bosom. …[S]he had never felt any attraction to the body itself….”
In another quiet story, “Dear Distant Love,” the woman’s oppression is even more dramatic. Mun-ja has a terrible job with a nasty boss, but she won’t look for something else. She has a long-time married lover, who shows up only on Sunday nights, often drunk. Everybody sees her as a miserable loser. Her lover, who is fairly well off, never gives her anything, and when his business flounders he demands large sums of money from her. After she gives birth to his daughter, the man persuades her it will be better for him and his wife to raise the girl. When her lover drunkenly urinates on the front gate, her landlady scolds Mun-ja and makes her scrub the area clean.
But Mun-Ja has a secret inner life that not only sustains her, but makes her happy. Author Sŏ Yŏng-ŭn depicts the resilience of Mun-ja’s inner life with a light touch, making use of images and details that gently persuade. “…[H}er silence originated from an absolute confidence that she could live under any conditions….” And: …[H}e had carved a thousand invisible scars into her, but she could live with those injuries…. She was like the legendary camel that draws eternal strength as it is burdened with load after load.” Her unshakable love for the utterly selfish man is part of what sustains her.
Sŏ Yŏng-ŭn portrays Mun-ja’s terrible burdens and her extraordinary stubborn strength with virtually equal power. The greater the ordeal, the happier Mun-ja becomes. By most measures, Mun-ja is passive and masochistic. Many readers will wish that she would rebel, like so many of the protagonists in the other stories in this collection. Some may feel anger at both Mun-ja and her creator. But “Dear Distant Love” is a powerful, masterful story.
Every story in this book flexes similar muscle. In “Wayfarer,” a woman returns from a mental hospital to find her husband and children have left for America. Her disturbing back story gradually emerges.
In “The Flowering of Our Lives,” a widowed mother feels tremendous guilt over her dislike of caring for her daughter and her longing to escape. Since her adolescence and college days, she has always longed for escape from her mundane life. At one point she wanders away at some risk — but not too much — and walks into a cabaret where she encounters Su-ja, a woman she knew slightly in college. She had seen Su-ja before, at a bathhouse. An image comes to the narrator’s mind: “I remember being overwhelmed by the sight of her huge breasts. She wasn’t so much washing those breasts… as giving them a bath.”
There’s an obvious but entirely unacknowledged attraction between the women. “… [I] hadn’t anticipated my feelings toward Su-ja. Perhaps it was her frail build, which appeared to have concentrated all of her strong desire toward life in those breasts.” “I make a living from these huge boobs,” Su-ja tells her.
The attraction between the women is what gives the story its sharp tension, though the suppression of lesbian desire is not the major issue. Rather, the erotic conflict becomes a symbol of the repression of the life-force in all its various forms. As the narrator concludes, “I believe the unexplainable contrariness inside me is a quality that cannot be judged against standards of morality and immorality.” The two women carry on with their difficult, incomplete, and rebellious lives, meeting occasionally. Reflecting on their differing lots, the widow sums things up: “In the presence of a big-chested woman’s rebellion, a rebellion that’s her daily existence… I watch as my unexplainable rebellion, the days of my feeble rebellion, which I dare to call the flowering of our lives, fall miserably to their knees.”
“I Ain’t Necessarily So” is a prose poem, with the memorable coda “My left hand is the king, my right the king’s scribe.” “Ali Skips Rope” gives us a girl who grows up worshipping the great boxer Muhammad Ali, and Ch’ŏn Un-yŏng’s striking imagery does indeed float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. The title story, “The Future of Silence,” describes a museum for languages that are about to become extinct. The institution serves as a lonely residence for the last speakers of these dying tongues. One of these ‘specimens’ runs away from the prison-like establishment but, finding no one to converse with, returns voluntarily. Kim Ae-ran’s story shimmers with melancholic resonances that are personal, political, and universal.
The Future of Silence is from Brookline’s Zephyr Press, a publisher of literature in translation that specializes in work from Russia, the Slavic countries, and East Asia. The press has been a local treasure since 1980, and this collection, full of marvels from Korea, provides further proof of Zephyr’s distinction.
Merrill Kaitz is a poet, editor, and writing consultant. He wrote The Great Boston Trivia & Fact Book and published Zeugma, A Magazine of Poems (now defunct). He is co-translator of The Silence of the Beloved, poems by Korean Buddhist monk Han Yong-un, and has reviewed novels and poetry for The Boston Globe.