Korean Literature
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Korean Literature

“Faded, threadbare, worn out” — Review of Hwang Sok-yong’s ‘The Road to Sampo’

This is something of a departure for Hwang Sok-yong, a pre-departure. Ordinarily he writes to a theme, to what he knows, to what he can twirl and dance and seduce into a form of romance and remembrance.

An old socialist with weeping scars and a few large stories, Hwang’s work is all about protests, prison cells, life on the run, and the promise of sudden utopian change. Once a man desperately scratching around for fellow ideological travellers, he now puts pen to paper hoping for a little late-term recognition — one or two well-deserved awards which he can place high upon the mantle shelf, polish regularly, and point to when, and if, people come to visit.

He is an author of wonderful ability who writes, it seems, only to let people know how tough he had it back in the late years of the Korean ‘pro-democracy movement’ (the label now used as a coverall for the full spectrum of protestors — many of whom were not actually pro-democratic — who fought against the authoritarian governments of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan).

The Road to Sampo is a nice reminder that before this political tint took over his life and his work, there was a younger Hwang, still a writer, but interested much more in simpler things. For a start, he travelled! Not to form ties with some affiliate underground organisation, not to help the workers of some distant factory to unionise, not to escape a tightening circle of police, but only because there were things out there to see.

He is poor and walking! There are trains and buses, but they cost too much or are too inconvenient to wait around for. It is an old world where people go well out of their way just for the chance of a little company, a brief friendship on the trail… just someone to talk to: “Yong-dal ran after him. When he caught up with him, he said, gasping for breath, ‘Let’s go together. I’m going in the same direction as you are, at least up to Wolchul.”

Hwang’s characters here are a touch more desperate than he was at the time, and through them you begin to see the pre-echoes of what would later strangle his literature. There is plenty of delinquency and waste to be found in their choices, but the thick chains of work and money are always there, and always the reason for why they are travelling.

They chat in long and detailed sentences about the machinery at different work-sites, the training, the food, the benefits and the salaries. They speak quietly about the promise of distant jobs as if they were talking about pyramid schemes, hoping to get in fast before it all collapses and everyone is inevitably cheated.

There are bridges and tracks and paths and roads and rivers and trees and birds and fields and cows and dogs and clouds and wind and snow and lakes and eyes and lips and teeth and smiles and laughter and thick-running tears. They are all painfully alive, and aware of it in each moment. We are confronted by a fast changing Korea where very few people are actually changed, or have any hope of being so.

This is a story of men, so it is also a story of women and alcohol. A few loose coins for a few glasses of beer, or a few loose, flirtatious glances with the hope of sex, marriage, wives, and domestic bliss. Combine the two and you have a dreamy perfection: “Wouldn’t it be nice,” joked Chong, “If we had Paek-hwa pour wine for us?”

This is also a story of sloppy translation… or, perhaps more accurately, a story of sloppy writing through translation. No doubt all the hard narrative details are there, diligently scribbled from Korean to English, but there is no way to imagine that Hwang would be happy with the clumsy, unthinking, poorly selected, under-punctuated, and grindingly repetitious prose that finds itself onto nearly every single page.

Take the quote used above:

Yong-dal ran after him. When he caught up with him, he said, grasping for breath, ‘Let’s go together. I’m going in the same direction as you are, at least up to Wolchul.

Or this from page 1:

The construction season was drawing near to an end. Winter was not far off. The construction would come to a stop only to resume in the spring. He would have to leave. Three days ago they closed the construction office as he had expected.

Or this from page 2:

He walked up to Yong-dal, until he was only a few paces away from Yong-dal, and said…

And so it continues, page after page…

A barmaid (a “bitch”) stumbles unceremoniously onto the scene — “squatting on the ground… holding up the tails of her red coat with her hands… urinating” — and into the company of our two travellers. Just like that, The Road to Sampo becomes On the Road, all the way down to the loose sexual freedom that cut through Jack Kerouac’s novel and defined the genre of ‘Travel Diary’ ever since.

A quick inventory of each other’s “bundle” tells the story which the translated dialogue fails to. The men carry “hammers and saws”, their new female companion “a couple of old slips, panties, lipstick, powder and what not”. Each are stories of survival and suffering in a world without safety nets. What these few belongings have in common is the condition they are in, “washed out, faded, threadbare, worn out”.

With so little to go on, the faintest whisper of a pay day, of comfort, of any kind of improvement, steals the mind and turns people around. That whisper here is Sampo! A port town with nothing more than “some fishing and potato farming” now huffing on the rumours of government investment and the labour intensive business of “carrying tons of rocks and gravel”.

From one whisper others follow: Sampo is also “pretty”, with “lots of land”, where the “soil is good” and the “fishing is good, too”. So slowly, they begin to walk, only now with a little more purpose, a little more hope, and plenty more spring in their step. Because after all, “If it’s [Sampo] as good as you say, why not pitch our tents there and call it home?”

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