The Old Garden

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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.

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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

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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).

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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)

 

 

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Who Ate Up All the Shinga? by Park Wan-Suh

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Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute publishes books! And such interesting ones too! Weatherhead Books on Asia includes books by Natsume Soseki, Zhu Wen, Abe Kōbō and more. As well as one of my all-time favourite books, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi (my thoughts).

I hadn’t heard of Park Wan-Suh before browsing their catalogue. My knowledge of Korean authors is a bit limited, but I have read books by Shin Kyung-Sook (I’ll Be Right There and Please Look After Mom), and the Color Trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa, a comic series. There might be one or two more but that’s all I can recall at the moment!

But I haven’t come across any non-fiction reads from Korean authors. So I jumped at the chance to read this one!

Who Ate Up all the Shinga? is such a charming book. Park has a very personable tone to her writing. And it kind of reminded me a little of another favourite book in translation, Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, Chihiro Iwasaki (Illustrator), Dorothy Britton (Translator). Tott0-chan’s story sticks to her early childhood years and focuses on this very fascinating school life she had in pre-WWII Tokyo. Park’s story begins with childhood but she goes on to tell us about her teenaged years as well.

It is an account first of her childhood in a rural village with less than twenty households in the 1930s. She has a grandfather who dotes on her, the only granddaughter. And this grandfather of hers tries to uphold the image of their family as “aristocracy” although that’s not entirely the situation. Plus it’s also a bit odd as their village is such a tiny one.

I am utterly fascinated by how the kids amused themselves. From making dolls out of grass, “noodles” out of pine needles, catching dragonflies and shrimp! It is such a gentle, idyllic life.

“We were part of nature, and because nature is alive, changing, in motion, not resting a single moment, we had no time to be bored.”

Her mother was determined to raise her and her older brother in Seoul, and when Wan-Suh turns seven, they move to Seoul for school, where she first discovers what city life is like. Korea is still occupied by the Japanese and Wan-Suh is made to learn Japanese in school.

Partly because her mother discourages her from playing with the neighbourhood kids, and partly because her classmates disdain her for being a country girl, Wan-Suh’s life in Seoul isn’t a joyful one. And she was thrilled to return to the village for summer.

“All day long, you’re going to be stuck in alleyways, playing marbles or skipping rope. The best treat you’ll have are the snacks you get by begging one chon at a time off the grownups. Meanwhile, I’ll be jumping around in the country like a puppy. Everything there is alive and breathing and moving around in the breeze. Tomorrow, I’m going to get to climb up hills and walk through fields and splash in streams. I’m going to get to breathe in air that’s got the smell of grass the wild flowers and soil.”

On another level, this is a story about a relationship between mother and daughter. Not entirely a happy peaceful one as her mother is quite a character. She’s rather demanding and determined, and was relatively educated at a time when women typically were not, especially those who were from the country. The account of her haggling with a porter to carry their bags when they first arrive in Seoul is quite hilarious. She is incredibly thrifty and hardworking, and yet at times, rather extravagant.

But her mother’s determination to have her children study in Seoul seems to pay off and their family does well, that is, until the Japanese leave Korea and things fall apart all around them.

It is a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse at life in Korea during the Japanese occupation and its aftermath. And while that may sound like a difficult period to be reading about, Park’s friendly, confessional tone, and her family’s moving story will capture your imagination and your heart.

 

Park Wan Suh was born in 1931 in Gaepung-gun in what is now Hwanghaebuk-do in North Korea. Park entered Seoul National University, the most prestigious in Korea, but dropped out almost immediately after attending classes due to the outbreak of the Korean War and the death of her brothparkwansuher. During the war, Park was separated from her mother and elder brother by the North Korea army, which moved them to North Korea. She lived in the village of Achui, in Guri, outside Seoul until her death. Park died on the morning of January 22, 2011, suffering from cancer.

Park wrote her first book just before she turned 40, and went on to write 20-odd novels and more than 100 short stories, winning prestigious Korean literature awards along the way. 

Works in translation
My Very Last Possession: And Other Stories
The Red Room: Stories of Trauma in Contemporary Korea
Sketch of the Fading Sun
Three Days in That Autumn
Weathered Blossom (Modern Korean Short Stories)
Who Ate Up All the Shinga?: An Autobiographical Novel

2015 Translation

 

This is the first book I read for the Books in Translation Reading Challenge