Korean Literature
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Korean Literature

“We’re tiny dwarfs” — Review of Cho Se-hui’s ‘The Dwarf’

Dwarfs are uncomfortable little creatures. Nothing fits the way it ought to and everything has a life of its own; no dexterity, no coordination between limbs. A Frankenstein of disproportionate body parts, nerves, bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and sinew, all dancing out of tune to impossible, foreign, music.

Before the men with the sledgehammers moved to the next house they had watched the woman and children in silence.” Cho Se-hui is writing a story that everyone here knows, whether they witnessed it or not. It is Korea old and new, proud and ashamed, guilty and victimised, necessary and indulgent; it is national identity. “The woman and children hadn’t opposed the men, they hadn’t cried. The men had found this disturbing.”

Others fight and kick and cry and beg and threaten and repeat. This is the metal and fire of change and rebirth. It rolls over the countryside, over slums, and over people. Everyone will slowly benefit, but the price is high… and painful!

In no time the roof and walls were levelled, leaving only dust.” And that night he is burning his kitchen door to cook and stay warm while “his children were asleep in the tent.” This is a novel about the next morning, the next evening, the exact moment when there is no more fuel for the fire; nothing else to burn.

This was Korea deep in the poverty of Japanese colonialism, war, and hand-to-mouth farming. Before it was cut in two, the peninsula was already divided: heavy industry in the north, agriculture in the south. So when that line was eventually drawn across the 38th parallel (hugged-tight by soldiers with guns) South Korea was at a sharp disadvantage.

In 1962 President Park Chung-hee was trying to change all of this. He announced the first ever Five Year Economic Development Plan, and stared back at his nation with a rough and step-fatherly contempt. He then did away with the mess of democracy, the atavism of environmental worry, and the tedious, obstructive pity of human dignity and labour rights. Park’s new South Korea would export its way to prosperity… no matter the cost.

Within a few decades everything below the Demilitarised Zone was dominated by “crony capitalists”, “powerful [family] conglomerates”, “strict national security laws”, and “societal ills caused by industrialisation”. It was also shockingly rich, turning the script on its northern brother, and chasing their former masters, Japan, into the smog of high-tech superpower.

It was also a country of panic and insecurity, where the tightest and most familiar emotion was always exhaustion. A world where sons are too physically tired to cry when their fathers die, where schooling and knowledge is only of the kind which drags children from families, and it’s not just that “there isn’t a country to save anymore” but that someday — with all this flood of globalisation — that child of yours, if by some marvel he or she is successful and alive, “would be thinking in a different language.”

If you are less lucky, then you are the dwarf! Living by an old river bank, the dark water creeping under your front door, chasing down odd jobs with the few tools you have left, and attacked by local gangs for daring to do so. When asked mid-beating “How many children do you have?” you answer with the only happy thought that ever crosses your mind, “three… they aren’t dwarfs”.

Written in short and urgent prose, nothing gets in the way here. The edges don’t fluff-outwards with colour and life… and there is no hope! Cho resists the obvious urge of redemption around the corner; the possibility of happiness, and of someone, anyone, saying aloud that it was all worth it in the end! This is humiliation and agony all the way down: “Our life is greyness.”

And there is an important undercurrent of purpose here, something that explains the language and the structure of the prose. This is a story written from within that horrible moment. So just like her characters, Cho was dodging the secret police and the national censors. She had to smudge the pages just enough, and in just the right way, so that the printing presses would still run, oblivious to what they had before them. And she had to do so with a simplicity that would appeal to the poorly educated man or woman on the street.

At a million copies, and in its 200th printing, it is safe to say that she achieved her goal, and that The Dwarf did its job!

It is a landscape and a pain that is now hard to imagine. Perhaps you are not the dwarf in this story, but you are his daughter limping into the local brothel, asking under her breath for an application form. Or perhaps you are his son, becoming “the man of the family” in his teenage years, only to quickly fumble the responsibility and lose his job for daring to join a trade union; at night watching everyone go hungry without your salary. Or you are the dwarf’s wife, keeping track of a pathetically slim “budget book” of the household expenses, as each day your family slips into an inescapable debt; thinking aloud that “dying is easier than living.”

Either way it is not long before you are sitting in the visitors’ gallery, surrounded by anger, and listening to the medical jargon of how a knife slides through human flesh. How those arteries break, those tendons snap, how the muscle peels-back, and how the body freezes with shock. Next to you people are whispering, wondering if the rumours are accurate, “if it was true that the defendant’s father was a dwarf.”

The pressure of the Park Chung-hee years broke with assassination and massacre — and soon everyone knew someone who spent their days throwing Molotov cocktails at lines of riot police. When the haze finally cleared, when the dictators were gone dead or arrested, and the new halls of politics were thick with former-activists and human rights lawyers, a final insult was written into language and culture. Something that was impossible to say at the time to describe those horrible decades: it was “The Economic Miracle”… A miracle!

Father’s height was forty-six inches, his weight seventy pounds”… In Park Chung-hee’s Korea, in the bosom of the miracle, “We’re tiny dwarfs — dwarfs.”

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