Written by Hwang Sok-yong | Translated by: Sora Kim-Russell
Have you ever listened to Big Yellow Taxi? I like the Counting Crows version.
Hwang Sok-yong is arguably Korea’s most prestigious and well-respected living author; his most recently translated works – Familiar Things and Princess Bari – have garnered themselves heaps of praise across the English-speaking world. This year we are treated to a fantastic translation (by the always-at-her-peak Sora Kim-Russell, translator of Sook-Shin Kyung’s recent masterpiece City of Ash and Red) of his most recent work, At Dusk.
The narrative here is split in two, with the books odd-numbered chapters recalling the life and memories of Park Minwoo, a rags-to-riches architect approaching old age, and the even chapters following the story of Jung Woohee, a twenty-eight-year-old woman who is barely making ends meet by working part-time to fund her passion for writing and directing theatre. The two narratives have seemingly nothing in common. Until, predictably, they do.
‘Strangely enough, my memories […] from that time are all jumbled together and disconnected. But I guess that’s only natural, since I’ve been living in a different world in the decades since.’
From Rags to Riches
Park Minwoo’s story is a familiar one: that of a man born into hardship and poverty, working his way through a series of fascinating and intense trials and labours to arrive at the success he always dreamed of. The interesting twist in the formula here is that, for Park, the trials have always been passed, and now we are treated to a backwards view of his life from the viewpoint of an ageing man who has become disenchanted by his riches and his current social, political, and financial situation.
As for Jung, her tale takes on a very different narrative flavour. It is at once lighter in tone and heavier. Her struggles are in the present, and the immediacy of her pain and her fight for success is felt with real intensity. All the same, she has a lot of personality on show, and her dialogue and her exchanges are packed with vigour.
‘The steel and cement structures pockmarking the land looked very different to me now, like it was all just a virtual world inside of a video game.’
The theme of the day here is very much in the steadily increasing gravity of regret that weighs down on Park as he considers his role in the modernisation and transformation of modern day Korea. In his flashbacks he slowly begins to pine for the raw life that he had carved out and survived through in the slums of his childhood, a time when perhaps he felt more alive.
For anyone who has spent any time in the Seoul of today, I don’t need to tell you how drab and dystopian it can look at times. Not a single house stands in the city; everyone’s life is packaged into a small section of a tall, grey apartment block. Whether rich or poor, everyone lives in one. And for Park Minwoo – one of the key players in creating this ugly cityscape – it seems that, perhaps, the slums held more attraction after all.
Jung Woohee’s story creates a strong support for this narrative by presenting us with a character forced to live in the world that Park had a hand in creating. She works part-time at a convenience store and struggles to follow her own dreams (dreams with connotations of freedom and artistic colour, to contrast the concrete bars that Park has built) living in a cold hard city full of cold hard people.
‘During the days of dictatorship held together by oppression and violence, we must have sought comfort in […] churches, in owning the luxuries sold in […] department stores. Or maybe we fell back on the media’s constant deluge of “justice through strength”. We needed the props and people that we’d made together to pacify us endlessly, to tell us that we’d made the right choice in the end. I, too, was just one small piece of the machine, just another cog that had narrowly managed to find comfort in their midst.’
What might be a very competent story – and one certainly worth telling when we consider the state of ever-growing metropolises across our planet’s landscape – does, in the end, feel a little paper-thin in its message. There’s a real lack of density to it. Though the human aspect of the story certainly adds a lot more to be enjoyed, especially in Park’s later flashbacks around the book’s midpoint. But overall the theme that Hwang is hammering home here does amount to little more than, as Joni Mitchell once said, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.