Hwang Sok-yong: 해질무렵 (At Dusk)
This is one of those books where we have two seemingly separate stories but which merge towards the end of the book in a way that we had probably not imagined. Our narrator hero in the first one is Park Minwoo. As an adult he is an architect but he grew up in a poor family. They lived in the small town of Yeongsan and in a house which was very basic – no indoor plumbing. His father worked as a clerk for the local township but was not paid well. Minwoo became friends with the neighbouring boy, Byeonggu. While Minwoo was still young, his father was fired for taking a bribe. The family packed their bags and moved to Seoul.
In Seoul, the father managed, through contacts, to get a job in a notary’s office. His mother was far more enterprising and she opened a fish stall. When the father had a stroke and could no longer work in the office, he helped her. Indeed, he managed to create fishcakes which people liked and which sold very well. Minwoo went to high school. There was only one other person in the neighbourhood who also went to high school and that was Cha Soona, whose father owned the local noodle house and whom several of the local boys were attracted to. The pair went to the library together and met at school but retained separate lives at home.
Minwoo (and Cha Soona) got to know Jaemyung. He and his brothers ran a small shoe-shine operation but were also tough, and not afraid of a fight. Minwoo eventually becomes friends with them and learns how to defend himself.
But Minwoo grew up and left the area. A general and his wife put him up in their home so that he could tutor their son. This helped him when he went to university to study architecture, so much so that he rarely returned home and rarely saw Cha Soona. He did return home and did see her before he went off on his compulsory military service.
We follow his life after that. He gets married (to a woman more or less selected by the general) but the marriage fails and, at the start of the novel, his wife and adult daughter are living in the United States. He works hard and makes a successful career as an architect. He has friends but remains a fairly solitary person.
The narrator heroine is Jung Woohee. She is in her late twenties and struggling as a theatre director and playwright. She works for a small theatre but makes little money for a lot of effort. She supplements her income by working the graveyard shift at a convenience store, where she meets the somewhat enigmatic Kim Minwoo. She lives in a basement flat which is permanently wet and mouldy. We follow her struggles in her career, which is not progressing well. She has had two affairs in her life but they have not worked out well. She is close to Kim Minwoo and even meets his mother, but they do not have an affair. Like Park Minwoo, she spends much of her time in her own world, bemoaning the state of the world, particularly that part that affects her directly. When I look at friends who are older than me, they don’t seem much better off. If anything, they look just as hopeless..
The book starts with Park Minwoo giving a lecture on architecture. At the end of the lecture, a young woman comes up to him and gives him a bit of paper with a name and phone number on it. She tells him to phone the number. He puts it in his pocket and forgets it but finds it later on. He phones but the caller is out. Eventually, they do connect. It is, of course, Cha Soona and part of the novel is how they connect and the result of this.
Another part of the novel concerns the change in South Korea over the course of Park Minwoo’s life. He is convinced that values are not what they were, there is no longer a sense of community, and that rural Korea is disappearing and is being urbanised. We see examples of this, with a lot of corruption in the building trade. Kim Minwoo has had a job evicting people from slums, often brutally, to make way for gentrification projects. Park Minwoo goes back to Yeongsan and is horrified to see how much it has changed and, in particular how much it has been gentrified and urbanised, his old house now gone.
Hwang Sok-yong is a superb writer, one of Korea’s best, and he tells a beautiful story. He does not preach or pontificate but clearly shows Korea has changed. Yes, it was bad in the past under the repressive policies of President Park (Hwang Sok-yong was politically active against Park and went to prison for it; Park Minwoo kept away from politics, focussing on his career). However, people, he seems to be saying, were better. Both Park Minwoo and Jung Woohee tend to be solitary but they are not entirely solitary but do socialise with others, though, all too often, these others have problems worse than they do. You can read it as a sociopolitical study on the development of South Korea but, above all, you can read it as an example of fine story-telling.
First published 2015 by Munhak Tongne
First English translation by Scribe Publications in 2018