Korean literature is becoming quite popular these days, although I just realized that the Korean authors who are buzzed about tend to be female (which is great!) like Shin Kyung-sook (Please Look After Mom), Han Kang (The Vegetarian), Suki Kim (The Interpreter). Or maybe it’s just that I tend towards female writers? I don’t know. But hey, Vanity Fair lists five Korean novels to read now (or at least read in November 2015) and they’re all by women.
Anyway, so here’s the thing, I could not name a single Korean male writer. And so I read this book. I found it on the Singapore library’s Overdrive catalogue (I love that I can borrow ebooks from two different countries’ Overdrive libraries!) and was intrigued, not by The Old Garden, but by Princess Bari.
Part of the Goodreads synopsis goes: “In a drab North Korean city, a seventh daughter is born to a couple longing for a son. Abandoned hours after her birth, she is eventually rescued by her grandmother. The old woman names the child Bari, after a legend telling of a forsaken princess who undertakes a quest for an elixir that will bring peace to the souls of the dead.”
Doesn’t that make you want to read this book? I sure did. Except that it was already borrowed out. So I put a hold on it, and went ahead to borrow a different book of Hwang’s, The Old Garden
The Old Garden didn’t have as interesting a cover. But at least mine wasn’t this blurred (possibly) Asian person’s head. I don’t like covers with blurred (possibly) Asian people.
Or you know, Asian women’s backs. Or necks. Or eyes (because the rest of the face is covered by a fan).
Anyway, I was drawn in by the story, more than I expected to be. The Old Garden is essentially a just-out-of-prison story. A political prisoner, Oh Hyun Woo, is released after twenty years and he discovers how much life has changed on the outside. It’s not about learning about new technology that kind of thing. But a reflection on how South Korea has changed over the years. Hyun Woo also discovers that the woman he loved is dead, but he finds her letters and paintings and learns about her life in the past twenty years. As a ‘girlfriend’ she wasn’t allowed to visit him. Life in Korean prisons is harsh.
It is a story told in a lot of flashbacks and letters. A gentle meandering pace, as if allowing for Hyun Woo to slowly relearn to live life outside of prison. It is a story about South Korea and its political history, its struggles, especially the Kwangju (or Gwangju) uprising, in which hundreds of civilians were killed after rising up against military rule, and which the author himself took part in. Hwang too was a political prisoner, sentenced to 7 years in the 1990s. I have to admit that sometimes it drags a little, and that Hyun Woo isn’t the most exciting of people, but as the narrative switches from his perspective, his current life, his past and that of his girlfriend Yoon-Hee, it seems to work.
I’m curious now about Princess Bari, as that sounds like a very different book from this one.
Hwang’s works (translated into English)
- Princess Bari (Periscope, 2015)
- The Shadow Of Arms (Seven Stories, 2014)
- The Old Garden (Seven Stories Press, 2012)
- The Ancient Garden (Pan Macmillan Hardback, 2009)
- The Guest (Seven Stories, 2006)
- “A Dream of Good Fortune” (1973, translated in the anthology Land of Exile: Contemporary Korean Fiction)