Twelve Days of Messenger’s Blog – Day Ten

41011-vegetarian

My tenth favourite book for the year will feature on plenty of “best of” and end of year lists. Winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize and surely will appear on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award lists (it was released in the USA sometime after the UK release).

Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” has been reviewed left, right and centre, so I possibly don’t add a lot to that landscape. For me the “rebellion” element with a character taking control over the last bastion of freedom (what she puts in her own body) was the domineering theme that made this novel stand out from the other contenders on the Man Booker International Prize list. As part of my Shadow Jury duties I am more than happy to reveal that I rated this novel on top, as there is no controversy revealing such, it did take out our Shadow Jury Award as well as the official award.

Here is my review from earlier in the year.

 

By no stretch of the imagination do I purport to have any knowledge of South Korean history or understanding of their current cultural situation.

Therefore a potted history taken from the preface of “Maninbo: Peace & War” by Ko Un may help to put some of the cultural themes to the fore:

In early 1960 the citizens began to protest, provoked by blatantly falsified election results. On 19 April 1960 thousands of university students and high school students marched on the Blue House, the presidential mansion, demanding new elections and calling for Syngman Rhee’s (a US installed leader in the 1940’s) resignation, the numbers growing to over 100,000. Police opened fire on the protesters, killing approximately 180 and wounding thousands. On 26 April, President Rhee stepped down from power and went into voluntary exile. This series of events is known as the April revolution.

South Korea adopted a parliamentary system which considerably weakened the power of the president and so, while Yun Bo-seon was elected president on 13 August 1960, real power was vested in the prime minister. Following months of political instability, on 19 May 1961 Lt General Park Chung-hee launched a cou d’état overthrowing the short lived second Republic of South Korea and replacing it with a military junta and later the autocratic third Republic of South Korea. Almost at once, he authorised the establishment 1961 of the Korean Central intelligence agency. This was the notorious office responsible for the repression of political and social descent throughout his time in power, and beyond. After Yun resigned in 1962, Lt General Park consolidated his power by becoming acting president. In 1963, he was elected president in his own right. In 1971, Park won another close election against his rival, Kim Dae-jung. Shortly after being sworn in, he declared a state of emergency, and in October 1972, Park dissolved the legislature and suspended the 1963 constitution. The so-called Yushin (‘revitalising’) Constitution was approved in heavily rigged plebiscite in November 1972.

Meanwhile, South Korea had begun the process of industrialisation and urbanisation that were to catapult it to its current position in the world. This was done at the expense of many basic human rights, with low wages, absence of trade unions, arbitrary arrests and random killings. Finally, as more and more people taking to the streets to do demand a return to democracy and a liberalisation of society, Park seemed to be preparing a violent crackdown when he was assassinated by Kim Jae-gyu, The head of the Korean Central intelligence agency, on 26 October 1979.

For a while, it seemed that the dreamed-of restoration of democracy might happen, but on 18 May 1980, General Chun Doo-hwan staged a coup while provoking an uprising in the south-western city of Gwangju which left hundreds dead. All the leading dissidents were thrown into prison and a new dictatorship began.

After continuing resistance and sacrifice on the part of many dissidents, climaxing in huge demonstrations in June 1987 which forced the dictatorial regime to accept the Democratic Constitution, Korea was finally able to elect a civilian president in 1992.

It is against this backdrop of dissent, rebellion and corruption that the themes of “The Vegetarian” become clearer.

Broken into three parts “The Vegetarian” opens with the first person narration by Yeong-hye’s husband, a plain man with no ambitions;

I’ve always inclined towards the middle course in life. At school I chose to boss around those who were two or three years my junior, and with whom I could act the ringleader, rather than take my chances with those my own age, and later I chose which college to apply to based on my chances of obtaining a scholarship large enough for my needs. Ultimately, I settled for a job where I could be provided with a decent monthly salary in return for diligently carrying out my allotted tasks, at a company whose small size meant they would value my unremarkable skills. And so it was only natural that I would marry the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world. As for women who were pretty, intelligent, strikingly sensual, the daughters of rich families – they would only ever have served to disrupt my carefully ordered existence.

He is married to a plain unremarkable woman, our protagonist, Yeong-hye;

However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married. The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground. There was no need to affect intellectual leanings in order to win her over, or to worry that she might be comparing me to the preening men who pose in fashion catalogues, and she didn’t get worked up if I happened to be late for one of our meetings. The paunch that started to appear in my mid-twenties, my skinny legs and forearms that steadfastly refused to bulk up in spite of my best efforts, the inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis – I could rest assured that I wouldn’t have to fret about such things on her account.

The basic plot of Han Kang’s novel is Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian (vegan in fact as she also avoids, dairy, eggs, wearing leather etc.) and the subsequent consequences. The first section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband, the middle section a third person story of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law’s relationship with her after her vegetarianism and the final section another third person account from the view of Heong-hye’s sister and husband of the artist featured in section two.

Let’s forget the linear plot as the sub-plot is the more interesting account here. This is a novel that explores institutionalisation, in many different forms, what it means to push against the norm, to what extent to we really have “freedom of choice”? The simple act of declaring her vegetarianism leads Yeong-hye to undergo ostracising by numerous peoples, not just her husband and her family, but governmental bodies, health professionals and more.

This is a novel that raises all the social norms, the familial norms, governmental norms, general rules of society, for example when is it okay to go semi-naked, when is it okay to choose what you eat, when is it okay to have a different appearance?

As the novel progresses the “kicking against the pricks” crosses into art, nature, sexual mores and begins to question our beliefs of what constitutes beauty, is it in the eye of the beholder? Is it something we have been programmed or influenced to believe?

The whole situation was undeniably bizarre, yet she displayed an almost total lack of curiosity, and indeed it seemed that this was what enabled her to maintain her composure no matter what she was faced with. She made no move to investigate the unfamiliar space, and showed none of the emotions that one might expect. It seemed enough for her to just deal with whatever it was that came her way, calmly and without fuss. Or perhaps it was simply that things were happening inside her, terrible things, which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was impossible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time. If so, she would naturally have no energy left, not just for curiosity or interest but indeed for any meaningful response to all the humdrum minutiae that went on on the surface. What suggested to him that this might be the case was that, on occasion, her eyes would seem to reflect a kind of violence that could not simply be dismissed as passivity or idiocy or indifference, and which she would appear to be struggling to suppress. Just then she was staring down at her feet, her hand wrapped around the mug, shoulders hunched like a baby chick trying to get warm. And yet she didn’t look at all pitiful sitting there; instead, it made her appear uncommonly hard and self-contained, so much so that anyone watching would feel uneasy, and want to look away.

A novel that questions social norms and raises questions such as, when someone is different why do we see vulnerability? The inner sleeve tells us that Yeong-hye spirals further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshy prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree.”

Why did you use to bare your breasts to the sunlight, like some kind of mutant animal that had evolved to be able to photosynthesize?

A wonderfully rich, multi layered work, that questions a raft of social issues on many levels. Written in a sparse, almost detached style, the translation is obviously reflective of a deeper South Korean cultural awareness and allows the reader to subtly become haunted by Yeong-hye’s journey from a meat eater to a natural being.

Surely a work that will feature on the upcoming Man Booker International Prize and Best Translated Book Award longlists, and one I expect to go far in both of these awards. A work of rebellion but without the ra-ra of some books, a haunting journey of what it means to resist.

Unbearable Splendor – Sun Yung Shin

unbearable

What is essay? In recent years I have been exploring the fiction form and the boundaries being pushed in the fictional format. Recently I have noticed an inordinate number of new essay collections hitting the shelf. Is the factual argument or the exploration of a subject via experimental means lesser of an essay? I recently reviewed Brian Blanchfield’s “Proxies; Essay’s near knowing” where personal restriction was put in place (for example, no research whilst writing each essay), this collection was vibrant, exciting, thought provoking and thoroughly enjoyable. Can others also experiment with the form for similar results?

As mentioned in my recent post about Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”, reading such a dense, complex and large book poses mental and physical restrictions. Generally I read one book from start to finish, pick up something that seems to suit the flow of my previous reading and then complete the new one, and continue ad-nauseum. A few “breaks” by participating in Women In Translation Month or Spanish Literature Month or other style read-alongs can break the flow I’m in and set me off on a new tangent. As regular visitors here would know I have been primarily focused on Latin American, South American literature for quite a few months now, and switching to the German was a massive cultural shift. Given the sheer size of “Bottom’s Dream” it is not a book I take to read on my daily work commute, I’m therefore breaking up the Germanic, at the moment, with various essay, short story or poetry collections. Regular visitors here will notice that over the comings weeks or months my posts will be reviews of books of the shorter form, although I do have a few unwritten reviews from novels read (and heavily notated) which I may get to write up and post.

For my essay reading I referred to a recent post at Book Riot titled “25 Great Essay Collections from 2016” http://bookriot.com/2016/09/20/25-great-essay-collections-from-2016/ – a number simply didn’t take my fancy as they appeared to address American History, or the blurb indicated a severe case of narcissism (“It tells stories about growing up and coming to understand her intelligence, her role as a writer, and her place in the world.”), I culled the list to six, yes I was savage in my culling process.

The first collection off the pile was Sun Yung Shin’s “Unbearable Splendor”. As publisher Coffee House Press tells us, “Sun Yung Shin is the author of poetry collections Rough, and Savage and Skirt Full of Black, which won an Asian American Literary Award. She coedited the anthology Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption, and is the author of Cooper’s Lesson, a bilingual Korean/English illustrated book for children”. With their blurb of the book saying, “Poetry as essay, as a way of hovering over the uncanny, sci-fi orientalism, Antigone, cyborgs, Borges, disobedience.”

Doesn’t help much does it?

An essay collection blending micro-fiction, poetry, graphs, all musing on themes linked to cultural or scientific references. We have Borges, Kafka, Antigone, the Minotaur, Dante, Pinocchio, the movies Alien and Blade Runner. Starting off with the universe’s creation, astrophysics, light, and black holes:

Maybe I am a kind of star. Burning – sending you the light to read by. A valley you might come upon gradually, not a hole to fall into.

Don’t be perturbed by the early graphs, showing ‘moving’ and ‘still’ plotted against axis’ of ‘human likeness’ and ‘familiarity’, the opening appears complex, but as you work your way through this fragmented poetic text the messages of identity and singularity come clearly into focus. In these graphs, the axis ‘human likeness’ appears as a demarcation line, policed with cameras and guns. As our poet was born in Korea the DMZ (demarcation zone) immediately springs to mind.

Parallel to Sun Yung Shin’s journey as a star, is her journey from Korea to the USA as an adopted child, a two-year-old. Attempting to explore her roots we have an ‘essay’ titled “One Hundred Days In The Cave” where Sun Yung Shin explores Korean history until the Bronze Age, as well as Korean creation myths.

Our time is recursive and forking. Our time is a garden in which all realities are simultaneously possible. All paths are truly one path. From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence. This sentence is utterly, heartbreakingly unique. Never before and never again. Yet they, in ensemble, create One Sentence. It holds and houses us. Announces and defends us. Blesses and confesses us. Curses and condemns.

Not your usual collection of ‘essays’ you need to dwell on the poetics, the message behind the written word, the timbre and the metre. Mixing myth with poetics, with familial recollections or dreams this is a startling revelation of a search for identity.

At one stage the Minotaur in his labyrinth is fed nine youths every nine years until visited by Theseus, and later the scientific research of dreaming in-utero is presented followed by “dreams are ephemera”, the adopted Korean cannot discern between truthful and deceitful dreams, the ones she has of her life in Korea, her biological parents being unknown, as evidenced by a facsimile of her Birth Certificate.

At one stage Sun Yung Shin links adoption to Gregor Samsa, the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, the similarities of having to change in a new environment, new restrictions, new cultural norms, new learned histories.

At times written in the plural, is this the royal “we”?, when the dreams of a forgotten childhood are documented, we later learn Sun Yung Shin’s playful language is in use here, in the essay “Autocionography” the concept of no such thing as “I” is explored.

to love the word we more than I – we don’t have to capitalize we even in the middle of a sentence – the I has been sprung from its prison no more stretcher for you letter I – who do you think you are letter I to be so tall to be like the Roman numeral one – you don’t stand for one anymore – you don’t stand up anymore

Not only exploring her cultural roots, her homeland, her adoption, this is a work deeply rooted in cultural references both Korean and American. We also have the themes of motherhood, of what it is to be female as evidenced by the epigraph from Carl Jung;

A particularly beautiful woman is a source of terror. As a rule, a beautiful woman is a terrible disappointment. – Carl Jung in an interview with Frederick Sands, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 10, 1961.

Even surrogacy is touched upon, “my womb a piñata”.

Antigone becomes as reoccurring character, and I have to ask are there parallels to Jacques Lacan’s 1997 quotes: though Antigone represents ‘‘a turning point in . . . ethics’’ and reveals ‘‘the line of sight that defines desire,’’ it is ‘‘Antigone herself who fascinates us, Antigone in her unbearable splendor’’? I’m no psychoanalyst, nor have a clue what half of their work means, so I’ll leave that to the more educated (wish me luck when I get into the whole Freud thing in Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”!!)

Unlike your more “vanilla” essay collections, this work uses poetic building blocks to slowly reveal the existentialist heart, a very impressive result as the personal connection is palpable. Successful where so many fiction writers fail. This work is layer upon layer of revelation, a slow unwrapping of identity, a convincing view of numerous ephemera, myth blended with science blended with history and culture, poetically descending into our consciousness and leaving a memory behind. Thoroughly enjoyable, experimental poetic essay, who would have thought!

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith) – Man Booker International Prize 2016

By no stretch of the imagination do I purport to have any knowledge of South Korean history or understanding of their current cultural situation.

Therefore a potted history taken from the preface of “Maninbo: Peace & War” by Ko Un may help to put some of the cultural themes to the fore:

In early 1960 the citizens began to protest, provoked by blatantly falsified election results. On 19 April 1960 thousands of university students and high school students marched on the Blue House, the presidential mansion, demanding new elections and calling for Syngman Rhee’s (a US installed leader in the 1940’s) resignation, the numbers growing to over 100,000. Police opened fire on the protesters, killing approximately 180 and wounding thousands. On 26 April, President Rhee stepped down from power and went into voluntary exile. This series of events is known as the April revolution.
South Korea adopted a parliamentary system which considerably weakened the power of the president and so, while Yun Bo-seon was elected president on 13 August 1960, real power was vested in the prime minister. Following months of political instability, on 19 May 1961 Lt General Park Chung-hee launched a cou d’état overthrowing the short lived second Republic of South Korea and replacing it with a military junta and later the autocratic third Republic of South Korea. Almost at once, he authorised the establishment 1961 of the Korean Central intelligence agency. This was the notorious office responsible for the repression of political and social descent throughout his time in power, and beyond. After Yun resigned in 1962, Lt General Park consolidated his power by becoming acting president. In 1963, he was elected president in his own right. In 1971, Park won another close election against his rival, Kim Dae-jung. Shortly after being sworn in, he declared a state of emergency, and in October 1972, Park dissolved the legislature and suspended the 1963 constitution. The so-called Yushin (‘revitalising’) Constitution was approved in heavily rigged plebiscite in November 1972.
Meanwhile, South Korea had begun the process of industrialisation and urbanisation that were to catapult it to its current position in the world. This was done at the expense of many basic human rights, with low wages, absence of trade unions, arbitrary arrests and random killings. Finally, as more and more people taking to the streets to do demand a return to democracy and a liberalisation of society, Park seemed to be preparing a violent crackdown when he was assassinated by Kim Jae-gyu, The head of the Korean Central intelligence agency, on 26 October 1979.
For a while, it seemed that the dreamed-of restoration of democracy might happen, but on 18 May 1980, General Chun Doo-hwan staged a coup while provoking an uprising in the south-western city of Gwangju which left hundreds dead. All the leading dissidents were thrown into prison and a new dictatorship began.
After continuing resistance and sacrifice on the part of many dissidents, climaxing in huge demonstrations in June 1987 which forced the dictatorial regime to accept the Democratic Constitution, Korea was finally able to elect a civilian president in 1992.
It is against this backdrop of dissent, rebellion and corruption that the themes of “The Vegetarian” become clearer.
Broken into three parts “The Vegetarian” opens with the first person narration by Yeong-hye’s husband, a plain man with no ambitions;
I’ve always inclined towards the middle course in life. At school I chose to boss around those who were two or three years my junior, and with whom I could act the ringleader, rather than take my chances with those my own age, and later I chose which college to apply to based on my chances of obtaining a scholarship large enough for my needs. Ultimately, I settled for a job where I could be provided with a decent monthly salary in return for diligently carrying out my allotted tasks, at a company whose small size meant they would value my unremarkable skills. And so it was only natural that I would marry the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world. As for women who were pretty, intelligent, strikingly sensual, the daughters of rich families – they would only ever have served to disrupt my carefully ordered existence.
He is married to a plain unremarkable woman, our protagonist, Yeong-hye;
However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married. The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground. There was no need to affect intellectual leanings in order to win her over, or to worry that she might be comparing me to the preening men who pose in fashion catalogues, and she didn’t get worked up if I happened to be late for one of our meetings. The paunch that started to appear in my mid-twenties, my skinny legs and forearms that steadfastly refused to bulk up in spite of my best efforts, the inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis – I could rest assured that I wouldn’t have to fret about such things on her account.
The basic plot of Han Kang’s novel is Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian (vegan in fact as she also avoids, dairy, eggs, wearing leather etc.) and the subsequent consequences. The first section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband, the middle section a third person story of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law’s relationship with her after her vegetarianism and the final section another third person account from the view of Heong-hye’s sister and husband of the artist featured in section two.
Let’s forget the linear plot as the sub-plot is the more interesting account here. This is a novel that explores institutionalisation, in many different forms, what it means to push against the norm, to what extent to we really have “freedom of choice”? The simple act of declaring her vegetarianism leads Yeong-hye to undergo ostracising by numerous peoples, not just her husband and her family, but governmental bodies, health professionals and more.
This is a novel that raises all the social norms, the familial norms, governmental norms, general rules of society, for example when is it okay to go semi-naked, when is it okay to choose what you eat, when is it okay to have a different appearance?
As the novel progresses the “kicking against the pricks” crosses into art, nature, sexual mores and begins to question our beliefs of what constitutes beauty, is it in the eye of the beholder? Is it something we have been programmed or influenced to believe?
The whole situation was undeniably bizarre, yet she displayed an almost total lack of curiosity, and indeed it seemed that this was what enabled her to maintain her composure no matter what she was faced with. She made no move to investigate the unfamiliar space, and showed none of the emotions that one might expect. It seemed enough for her to just deal with whatever it was that came her way, calmly and without fuss. Or perhaps it was simply that things were happening inside her, terrible things, which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was impossible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time. If so, she would naturally have no energy left, not just for curiosity or interest but indeed for any meaningful response to all the humdrum minutiae that went on on the surface. What suggested to him that this might be the case was that, on occasion, her eyes would seem to reflect a kind of violence that could not simply be dismissed as passivity or idiocy or indifference, and which she would appear to be struggling to suppress. Just then she was staring down at her feet, her hand wrapped around the mug, shoulders hunched like a baby chick trying to get warm. And yet she didn’t look at all pitiful sitting there; instead, it made her appear uncommonly hard and self-contained, so much so that anyone watching would feel uneasy, and want to look away.
A novel that questions social norms and raises questions such as, when someone is different why do we see vulnerability? The inner sleeve tells us that Yeong-hye spirals further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshy prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree.”
Why did you use to bare your breasts to the sunlight, like some kind of mutant animal that had evolved to be able to photosynthesize?
A wonderfully rich, multi layered work, that questions a raft of social issues on many levels. Written in a sparse, almost detached style, the translation is obviously reflective of a deeper South Korean cultural awareness and allows the reader to subtly become haunted by Yeong-hye’s journey from a meat eater to a natural being.
Surely a work that will feature on the upcoming Man Booker International Prize and Best Translated Book Award longlists, and one I expect to go far in both of these awards. A work of rebellion but without the ra-ra of some books, a haunting journey of what it means to resist.

Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

Wild Apple – HeeDuk Ra (translated by Daniel Parker and YoungShil Ji)

Earlier in the week I looked at the latest English translation release from Korean poet Ko Un, “Maninbo – Peace & War”, and another new release I purchased at the same time is now up for review, female Korean poet HeeDuk Ra and her book “Wild Apple”.
This work is published by White Pine Press and is volume twenty-one in their Korean Voices Series (even though the image of the cover says “Volume 20” my edition says “Volume 21” and the listing in the back of the book contains 21 publications). The collection includes a novel by Cheon Myeong-Kwan, “Modern Family” (translated by Kyoung-lee Park), four collections of stories, their first volume being an anthology of Korean Fiction titled “The Snowy Road” and seventeen poetry collections, including Ko Un who I reviewed earlier in the week and a work titled  “This Side of Time; Selected Poems by Ko Un” (translated by Claire You and Richard Silberg) and another collection of HeeDuk Ra poetry called “Scale and Stairs” (translated by Won-chung Kim and Christopher Merrill).
As HeeDuk Ra explains in the “Poet’s Note” at the end of the collection, “it was an unfamiliar continent where I first tasted a wild apple. Sour and astringent, that untamed flavor was quite different from the apples of a fruit store or in a farmer’s basket. Like a bird pecking at a wild fruit, I felt awkwardly free.” Our translators, Daniel Parker and YoungShil Ji, explain in the “Translator’s Note, also at the conclusion of the collection;
Wild Apple represents a rebirth, or at least a change in direction, for Ra’s poetry. In an early interview just days before she left South Korea for he sabbatical year in England, Ra explained that she used to work diligently on self-reflection, but many of the poems in this book were “released” much more naturally. She wanted to “quench her desire to write” by waiting for the right moment to construct her ideas in written language; relying on her heart more than her brain.
“Wild Apple” is a slim volume, running to 88 pages, and containing sixty-two poems, many of them born during her trips to the United States and the title poem itself coming from a visit to New Mexico.
This is a subtle, nuanced collection of poetry, with that natural world prominently featured, wind, cliffs, clouds, setting suns are recurring themes, as is weather. In ‘Raindrops’ we have the rhythmic pattern of rain intermingled with the story of rain’s cycle, “I realized raindrops are the death of clouds”…”I realized clouds are the death of a river”; all of this is interspersed with the tale of American Indian burial mounds and the connection these have to landscape and environment.
Drops of Water
after he disappeared
I began to hear the water all around
into the dirty battered sink
tok, tok, tok, tok, tok …
staccato drops of water falling
.
the sound signals a leak in my life
I give my ear to it like touching it with dry roots
like knocking at a door
like footsteps
sometimes like chattering birds
the sound of water
in a drop a child cries
in a drop a hydrangea blooms
in a drop a goldfish dies
in a drop a bowl breaks
in a drop snowflakes fall
in a drop an apple ripens
in a drop I hear a song
climbing through the distant pipes,
droplets wet the silence of my empty room,
rock a cradle with tearful eyes
my heart, too, begins to resemble a waterdrop
tok, tok, tok, tok, tok…
foreign drops of blood flowing into my pale skin
Forefront here, again, is the rhythm of drops of water from a leaking tap, but measured against the passing of time, all the events that happen in the blink of an eye, or in the time it takes for a drop of water to fall into the battered sink.
The poem ‘Between “No Sighting” and “Sighting”’ takes the diaries from a whaling ship and turns the nineteen days of monotony, the repetitive period of “no sighting”, into a poem. We have the fog, deep night seas, blood, and scrawlings in Chinese characters on a faded log page, all drawing a vivid picture of 1970’s lonely whaling expeditions.
Obscure daily activities, like hanging out a pair of panties to dry, become poetry, as HeeDukRa observes the shadow on the floor. We have cleaning a barren pond, inhaling fog, a celebration of being alive and awareness of the present moment. Although not meditative the mundane daily activities are highlighted to show the beauty in each waking moment.
The poem “Like Pig’s Heads” mixing the tradition of having pig’s heads on display in the Jagalchi street market and their fake smiles, against a person smiling in the mirror and a glimpse of an anonymous person in the rear view mirror on the way to work.
Road kill is mingled in with lamentations for past lovers, blooming banksia’s and their germination cycle back up against burned corn fields. The movie ‘Being John Malkovich’ is the subject of one poem, up against wearing red shoes and celebrating the art and freedom of dancing.
This is a beautiful collection of poems, ones to ruminate upon, ones to dwell and and allow their full impact to be felt.

Given the quality of the work I am pretty sure I will be exploring a number of other books from White Wine Press and more specifically a few more of the twenty-one available in the Korean Voices Series.

Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

Maninbo (Peace & War) – Ko Un (translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Lee Sang-Wha)

Last week I reviewed Svetlana Alexievich’s “Zinky Boys – Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War”, and at that time I wrote about her being favoured to win the Nobel Prize for number of years. Another writer who has prominently featured in Nobel Prize winning discussions is Ko Un from Korea, however it has taken me some time to read any of his works. A new release was time to discover his writing.
Born in 1933 in Kunsan in Korea’s North Cholla Province, when Korea was under Japanese rule, forced in June 1950 to repair the bomb-damaged runways of an air-force base by the People’s Army when the Korean War broke out, he later joined a Buddhist clergy, living a life of Zen meditation, travelling the whole country and living by alms for ten years. In 1962 he resigned from the clergy, falling into deep depression, attempting suicide and heavy drinking he awoke in a hospital after a thirty hour coma from a failed suicide attempt. During this ten year period, as a nihilist spokesman, a number of publications occurred. In 1973 he rejected his reputation as a spokesman of Nihilism and began writing militant nationalist poetry. Taking a leading role in the drive against president Park Chung-Hee’s plan to amend the Constitution to allow himself a third term in office he became the first secretary-general of the Association of Writers for Practical Freedom. This led to his persecution by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and a number of arrests and prison terms. Tortured, court martialled on the suspicion of high treason we was sentenced to a long prison term. In 1982 after lobbying by other writers he was set free by a general pardon on Liberation Day (August 15).
As the ‘Translator’s Preface’ outlines, “Maninbo” (Ten Thousand Lives) is a thirty volume series of narrative poems, “a total of four thousand and one poems containing the names of 5600 people, which took 30 years to complete. Ko Un first conceived the idea while confined in a solitary cell upon his arrest in May 1980.”  In “For the Faces of the World” (the writer’s preface to this volume) Ko Un himself says:
The reason why there is night should be the stars. Beneath the starlight of the night sky I have lived the chronology of my poetry.
In October 1979 I provided one of the motivations for an incident by which the most blatant dictatorship in modern Korean history had to be brought to an end. After the assassination of the dictator, I was freed from prison. However, in May the following year, with the second military coup, I abruptly became a criminal, guilty of conspiring to rebel, violating martial law, and inciting others to violate martial law, etc.
The special cell in the military prison was a closed space without windows, measuring 1.5 metres by 1 metre. Given the state of emergency in force then, my very survival was most uncertain. I had already decided what my final gesture would be when the time came for me to die. Deprived of present time in that despair, the incompetent act of remembering alone served as a substitute for the present time. I began to realise that remembering and imagining something could be a source of strength, enabling me to endure day by day the darkness and the fear.
“Maninbo” was born as a “collection of songs about the people” Ko Un came to know in this world.
Simply looking at his life story and Ko Un’s message that every human deserves a memory, acknowledgement, recognition, alone this noble task surely means a future Nobel Prize.
This new collection of Ko Un’s works, from Bloodaxe Books, contains volumes 11-20 of the “Ten Thousand Lives” project, with the first volumes previously appearing in a US publication in 2006 (sadly now out of print), with volumes 16-20 focusing on the suffering of the Korean people during the Korean war. The books has an introduction by Ko Un, a Translator’s Preface and a summary of Korean history to assist the reader with context, a very welcome addition for this reader as it briefly covers, in seven pages, ancient times through to the present day situation.
The poetry collection opens with an acknowledgement of all of the people that are mentioned throughout:
Hiding the Name
On first meeting
when a person, should introduce himself by name,
he just mutters,
bowing his head.
When he leaves condolence money at a house in mourning
he never writes his name on the envelope,
so when the chief mourner meets him a few months later,
he hesitates to thank him, not sure
whether he paid a visit
or not.
Perhaps he hides his name out of humility,
preferring to have no nameplate or house number in this world
where people love to make their names known.
Or maybe that’s not the reason, either.
On general election days
all he does is put a mark on a paper and leave.
When it happens to be a fine day
and flocks of sparrows fly high,
does each individual bird have a name?
Why, a name is a person’s prison.
The meter and timing of each poem takes the form of the person he is writing about, as we stunningly see in “Gongju Dawdler” which describes a slow meditative Buddhist who contemplates the passing of time:
When they go to Seoul from Daejeon station
they are sure to take the slow train,
which stops at every station,
at every station.
Whilst the first five volumes look at historical characters, everyday people in markets or travellers, once we get to volume sixteen the tones becomes relentless as the Korean War comes to the fore. The vignettes of the people impacted, families destroyed, villages annihilated. But as we learn it wasn’t only the people to vanish, it was the traditions, the warmth, and hospitality that the people were known for, it was a period of suspicion:
A suspicious person is a spy.
A traveller is a spy.
Anyone loitering at the seaside early in the morning,
anyone who laughs for no reason
at the sight of someone, anyone, all are spies. Report them.
Report them and earn a reward that will change your luck.
In this country today we have no more wandering travellers.
In the early volumes I was searching second hand bookstores to buy more of Ko Un’s works, especially trying to source volumes 1-10, however as the Korean War section begun I had a lull, with a number of poems more fact driven and at times tedious, but the sheer volume of impacted people becomes apparent as you get a glimpse of a country torn apart by Russian, Japanese, US, UN and local forces.
Mixing humour and pathos to break up the sheer horror of the wartime events, some references to people verging on personal attacks, many writers appear in the poems, for example Choi Dok-gyeon (author of “Sorrowful Song of a Buddhist Temple”) he says “He went back to being a first-class lecher, a second-class journalist,/and a third-class writer.”
A Mouse
After the bombing
a gaunt mouse came along.
He was glad.
‘How hungry you must be!’
Legless Gi-cheol threw his wooden pillow,
knocked the animal senseless,
cooked and ate it.
He cooked and ate the scream the mouse made
as it died.
When would the war end?
Spanning Korean history we have moments of a life, a glimpse, we have whole lives from birth to death, we have the school-girl sweetheart who is raped multiple times and buried alive, a juxtaposition of beauty and horror. We have Buddhist musings, meditative contemplations on existence up against the brutality of war, imprisonment, torture. In true Buddhist style the contemplation of others is always to the fore and my reading from cover to cover is possibly not the best way to approach this monumental work, if you were to read a poem a day, contemplate the others pain and suffering and existence it would take you almost eleven years to complete the reading.
The determination of the Korean people is balanced by the simple thought that “life goes on”:
From ”Yi Jang-don’s Wife”
After Seoul was first recaptured
Yi Jang-don’s wife.
a strong woman,
sold rice-cakes in the Republic of Korea;
after the retreat
she sold rice-cakes again in the People’s Republic.

A remarkable collection of people’s lives, a celebration as well as a denouncement of humanity. A work that should be on every poetry reader’s shelves, a work you need to revisit time and time again, to ground yourself. Surely the Nobel Prize is forthcoming.

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