Korean Literature
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Korean Literature

“Semblance of life” — Review of Kim Tong-ni’s ‘Red Clay Tales’

There are two ways for this to start. With a pair of yellow dragons, happy in their violence, wounded and bleeding into the soil. Or with a kind-hearted oaf, thick through his limbs, “grizzled” by overwork, and hoping — in between cigarettes — to feel just a little more alive.

This is the Korean version of things, so we are dealing with the lumbering idiot… his name is Oksoe.

The taste of dragons still lingers somewhat, but only in the rough and impulsive tempers of our characters, and in the stained landscape: “Dragon Stream”,Red Clay Valley”. And it’s in this weed-friendly valley — “green as far as the eye can see” — where everything happens; what little of it there is!

A sign of the smallness and the suffocation, on most days the people who live here are either drunk or working hard at it. Grinding her teeth with anger and purpose, Oksoe’s young wife wanders quickly onto the page: “Bastard and bitch together, one blow from a knife…” She is falling over her body as much as her words, and her jealous mutterings are about another man. She is also spilling her wine, which is much more unforgivable.

On cue the other man, Tukbo, is wandering down the mountain, happy and loud, his skin a “copper-like” blue. He is “swinging a wild boar upside-down in one hand”. The question of Puni’s fidelity doesn’t come up, in fact both men seem nearly indifferent to the pouting woman now dosing-off in the grass. There is something much more meaningful and much more exciting to plan for: bloodshed!

It is here, and only here, that this famous Korean tale finds something worth talking about; something half-insightful. “A flame blazed in both men’s eyes alike. It was a fearful flame, fierce enough to melt sulphur under the ground”, and so a bruising picnic is decided upon for the next day.

In the same familiar green field, our elephant-like men sit in deep grass and drink wine by the bowl. Repetition is a large part of the message here. They are naked to their waists, women don’t enter the conversation, cigarettes are smoked, laughter echoes between the mountains, and everyone is deeply, deeply happy in their moment.

Then with the same joyful tone — while still courteously filling each other’s bowls and sharing the best cuts of pork — carefully measured insults begin stumbling into the language: “You bastard…”, “You filthy old man…”, “You damned butcher…”, “You blasted thief…”

It is all performative, an act of sorts; a limbering-up ritual so that both men are ready for the ensuing fun. And what fun it is! Jabs are thrown, heads are smashed, eyes swell, noses collapse, cheekbones fracture, ribs are bruised, teeth are lost, jaws are broken, groins are kicked, and skin is eaten: “Oksoe chewed noisily at the flesh from Tukbo’s shoulder he had in his mouth, then spat out the bloody lump.”

Yet through the near-death carnage, both men fizz with a rarely felt happiness. They egg each other on to try a little harder, to do more damage, shrugging-off explosions of blood, all the while continuing their previous conversation “in a kind of sing-song glee.”

It is violence for its own sake, but not violence without a purpose. In his biographical novel, Memoirs from the House of the Dead, Fyodor Dostoevsky talks about a moment towards the end of his prison sentence in a Siberian gulag. A fellow inmate, someone who had always followed the prison rules, suddenly, for no noticeable reason, launched into a fierce rage across the prison yard. Watching his friend do this, and imagining the horrific public torture that the guards would inflict upon him, Dostoevsky had an insight into what hopelessness and boredom can do to a man:

All this disorderliness has its special risk, so it all has a semblance of life, and at least a far-off semblance of freedom. And what will one not give for freedom? What millionaire would not give all his millions for one breath of air if his neck were in the noose?

It was the previous spring when Tukbo first wandered into town, and announced himself, naturally, through brutality and alcohol. A bar fight to be precise, and the lost pride of some unhappy gamblers. Oksoe watched-on with growing excitement as the slighted men were all “soon sprawling on the ground”. But it wasn’t until he felt that first punch and the tightening of Tukbo’s grip around his neck that “Oksoe suddenly felt his heart fill with joy as though he was being lifted into the air.”

Before this wonderful twinkling of asphyxiation, Oksoe had been alone — so different in size and power and energy from those around him, that his gifts sat with him as a scratching, schizophrenic voice in the ear. A silent and impossible stress.

Oksoe’s family tolerated him only as much as the rest of the village did — an attitude more closely described as fear or vulnerability. If they didn’t tolerate him, what else could they do? Like a tiger who has taken residency in your house, it is best just to smile, over-feed him, and hope he doesn’t get too playful with you.

Lonely evenings spent climbing to the peaks of mountains, throwing boulders around for entertainment, and casually self-harming with agricultural tools, all came to an end that night in the bar. Tukbo quickly moved himself into the house next door, and “their lives had begun from that day.” Both men had found their semblance of life.

But this is a story about Korea. One that Koreans love and retell. Just why that is? Who knows! Ask a Korean and shoulders begin to shrug and unsatisfying answers about how tradition doesn’t need explaining are offered.

Based on when it was written, Red Clay Tales probably has something to do with Japanese colonisation; and perhaps even the division of the peninsula. But if so, then who represents Korea in our story? The two powerful giants? Unlikely! The villagers skulking around in the shadows, trying desperately not to offend them? This is certainly more plausible. But things still don’t quite fit!

Red Clay Tales is a revelry in the joys of violence, not in the impotence of the average man. This is power and pain, insult and trauma, blood and bruise; no place for the weak, no place for suffering of any kind. These are the type of men that set dates on their calendars, pack festive lunches, and plan ahead for frenzy and carnage… even murder if it comes to that. They are Greek gods rampaging through the countryside, scarring the landscape in their image, and building-up their failures into hard virtues.

Take it as you like, but whichever way you try to spin it, this is not a Korean story!

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