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Hwang Jungeun: 百의 그림자 (One Hundred Shadows)

Books about shadows are not new of course. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s In Praise of Shadows uses the idea of shadows as a metaphor for describing how Japanese literature works. Many horror and noir books make full use of shadows. And, of course, Peter Pan loses his shadow. This book, however, takes a somewhat different and original approach.

The story is about a young woman, Eungyo, and a young man, Mujae. Both have dropped out of school to work. Eungyo had lived alone with her father, as her mother had left when she was very young. The mother was, as her father’s relatives said, too pretty, too young and had too large breasts for her father and soon ran away with another man. Her father was a low-key father, diffident, and indifferent as a parent. His main activity, when not working, was fishing and, to Eungyo’s disgust, he kept the live fish in the bathroom. She dropped out of school because she was bullied too much. Mujae’s parents had run up huge debts and, eventually, this killed his father. Mujae had to go out to work and has struggled ever since, trying to pay off the debt.

Both work more or less in the same place. This is a series of five large huts which contain a huge amount of small businesses – generally only one or two employees – engaged in a wide range of activities. Mujae’s employer, Mr. Gong, makes and repairs transformers, while Eungyo’s employer, Mr Yeo, repairs a variety of electronic goods. Clearly the businesses and the area are for ordinary people, not least because the various firms struggle to make ends meet. Eungyo and Mujae met when she had to take a transformer to be repaired to Mr. Gong’s.

We cannot really say that they are boyfriend and girlfriend, at least in the romantic/sexual sense. They seem to be just friends. Initially, they only get together when they meet by chance. Later, they do phone and make arrangements and, indeed, when Eungyo phones Mujae and asks for his help, he rushes over to her house, usually by bicycle. Much of the book, though by no means all, is about their activities together.

We meet them and the shadow at the beginning of the book. They are out walking in the woods together, when Eungyo sees something. She thinks that it looks familiar but does not know what it is. She follows it, as she thinks it may have found a path. She plunges into the thicket and only stops when Mujae calls her back. She tells him why she had gone on and described the thing she had followed. Both realised that it looked a lot like her. She realises it is her shadow. Mujae warns her about following a shadow. Later in the walk, we will learn that his father followed his own shadow just before he died.

The shadow has been a distraction and they are now lost. After a lot of walking they find a peasant’s hut, and the peasant puts them up for the night and shows them the way home the following day.

We follow the relationship between Mujae and Eungyo, in which nothing much seems to change, except Mujae seems more devoted than before. (We’re not a couple, Eungyo comments later in the book and then tactfully adds I don’t know about relationships, Mujae, but it’s nice sitting here like this.) We follow their daily life. It seems that the authorities are planning to gentrify the area and tear down one of the huts, perhaps to build a new one. In the end, they do tear it down and build a nice park but this causes problems for the various businesses, which have to relocate and, as there is no map, it is difficult for people to find them. However, above all, we follow the shadows.

We have already seen Eungyo’s shadow go off on its own. We have learned of Mujae’s father’s shadow which rose and which he followed for a while. Eungyo mentions it to Mr. Yeo and he warns her against following her shadow. That’s what’s scary, you feel light somehow, carefree, if you surrender to the shadow’s pulling at you, so you keep on following it, and that’s when it strikes.

But more people have their shadow rising. There is Mr. Yeo’s friend whose shadows rises even though his flat is on the thirteen floor. Mr. Yeo then admits his shadow used to rise at home but his family ignored it. He followed it but his voice followed, whispering in his ear that he should not follow it. Eventually he gave up.

We meet Yugon, a young man who hangs around the market, trying to cadge money off Mr. Yeo to buy a lottery ticket. He always has the magic formula for the current lottery but somehow never wins. His father died when a crane fell on him at a construction site where he was working. After the funeral, his mother broke down and went to hospital. When she came out, she was carrying a shadow on her back. It would not go and, indeed, got worse. And then Yugon’s shadow started behaving in a strange way.

We follow the stories of other people, whose shadows behave in an unusual way, including Mujae, who trips over his. So what does it mean? Clearly, we can take it at face value. It is something of a fantasy tale in which, quite simply, shadows behave erratically. However, I think there is more to it. The shadows do seem to behave erratically at periods in people’s lives when they are undergoing some kind of stress or change. The first shadow in the book is Eungyo’s, when out walking in the woods with Mujae. As she indicates a bit later, she is starting to feel some sort of sexual attraction for Mujae and even drops hints to this effect, though Mujae does not follow through. His shadow appears later in the book when he seems more and more intent on wooing Eungyo but is clearly unsure how to do it. Yugon’s father’s shadow occurs when he is facing serious debt problems and Mr Yeo’s when communication within his family is difficult. In short, it is an indicator of stress.

However, as well as the shadow, the story is about the urban poor. Virtually every character in the book is struggling financially and often struggling with life. They all tend to be low-key and withdrawn, internalising their problems, rather than discussing them with others and, of course, only manifesting any concern when their shadow misbehaves. Hwang Jungeun is clearly very concerned about these ordinary people and their daily struggles.

Hwang Jungeun has had considerable success in South Korea with her work and this novel clearly shows why. It is an original approach but she manages to write about low-key characters, who shows little emotion but are clearly struggling with life complexities, in a way that attracts our attention and we can readily identify with Mujae and Eungyo, feel sorry for Yugon and his family and understand the other characters trying to cope with life. I shall look forward to further works of hers translated into English.

Publishing history

First published 2010 by Minŭmsa
First English translation by Tilted Axis Press in 2016