Ethereal, dream-like, accepting of their fate. South Korean working class literature.
Two young people work in an electronics market and slowly develop a friendship.
We meet Eungyo as she is following her shadow, causing her to become separated from the group she is with. Mujae follows her and stops her. Shadows rise and seem to lure one to follow it, something that others try to prevent, for it feels death-like.
Although it is never explained the constant mention of human shadows and their various behaviours provoke the reader’s imagination to ascribe meaning. Ill health and approaching death cause it to rise, and perhaps thoughts, reaching the limit of what one is able to endure. One shouldn’t follow it.
Their bond is formed as the environment within which they work is threatened with demolition. There is a subtle interdependency between the market traders, repairing and selling electronics, so when people who have worked there for years suddenly disappear, it unsettles the tenants.
Rumours and false media reports hasten their demise. They hold onto rituals, sharing soup, drinking rice wine, telling stories.
Do you know what a slum is, Eungyo?
Something to do with being poor?
I looked it up in a dictionary.
What did it say?
An area in a city where poor people live. Mujae looked at me. They say the area around here is a slum.
The papers, and people.
It’s a little odd, isn’t it?
It is odd.
We sat there repeating the word for a while, and then I said, I’ve heard the word, of course, but I’d never thought of this place as a slum.
This short novella witnesses the various encounters between these two, the stories they recount which often include shadows they’ve witnessed, the simple soups they consume, the songs they sing. Shadows, soup, songs, survival.
The novel was inspired by the effect on ordinary working class people affected by Korea’s eviction-centred redevelopment policies, where the government removed residents and vendors by intimidation and force. Redevelopment involved a complex web of often obscure relationships between corporations and government, wealthy landowners and hired thugs, low-income tenants and the police. The novella provides a gentle, poetic insight into those marginalised by those policies.
Hwang Jungeun’s debut novel, translated by Jung Yewon was a critical and commercial success in South Korea with its mix of oblique fantasy, hard-edge social critique, and offbeat romance.
“My home was described in the news as ‘a slum’. This was an outside view; I wrote my novel to show it from the inside.”
It won the prestigious Hankook Ilbo Literary Award and the Korean Booksellers’ Award. Mentioned by Han Kang, who won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian as South Korea’s rising literary star.
Note: This novel was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher, Tilted Axis as an e-book.