Cheon Myeong-Kwan: 고래 (Whale)
We open with Chunhui, which means Girl of Spring, though, as we learn, she was born in the winter. We know that she is unable to speak and weighed over 100 kilos (nearly sixteen stone/220 pounds) by the time she was fourteen. She was an expert brickmaker, learned from her stepfather Mun and that she had been in prison for arson. She has now been released, aged twenty-seven, and returned to the brickyard. There is not much left. The kilns are ruined. All the intact bricks had long been stolen by the locals. She tries to survive – eating mulberries, salamander eggs and even a snake.
However, though she plays a a major role in this book, it is her mother, Geumbok, who is the main character and we will follow her story which, of course includes that of her daughter.
However, before we get to her we have the story of the old crone and her one-eyed beekeeper daughter. Both will play a small but significant role in this book. She will abuse her daughter, particularly when she sleeps with the crone’s lover. She then sells the daughter to an itinerant beekeeper. The bees will also paly a role.
Geumbok’s mother had died and she was living with her father. He was sexually attracted to her and though he did not assault her, he was very jealous of any men she frequented. She worked at a bar owned by twin sisters she did have boyfriends, so much so that, by the time she was twenty-five she had already experienced quite a lot, enough to feel as though she was finished with men. We will learn that this is not entirely true. She persuades an itinerant fishmonger to take her away, claiming that her father has died, which he has though she does not know this. The details she gives of his death will turn out to be true. This is by no means the only case of prescience in this book.
When she got to the city, Geumbok was entranced and even more entranced when she saw a huge fish which turned out not be a fish but a blue whale. She will remain fascinated by the whale and was horrified when it is finally captured.
Her arrival in the city – she had never visited a city before – sees her wandering round the city and port. She meets a fisherman who offers to show her around but then attempts to rape her. She is rescued by a giant of a man, Geokjeong. As happens on several occasions in this book, both of these two will play role in her future life. However, before that, we learn one of Geumbok’s key skills – that of being an excellent entrepreneur. She returns to the itinerant fisherman – as with the together men in her life, she will have sex with him – and shows him how to make a lot more money by drying fish and selling the dried fish in remote markets. He takes the credit but she has the brains.
Geokjeong comes back into her life and she helps improve him. He spends all of his wages on food and she gets him to get his employer to increase his wages as he does three time the work of the others. They enjoy a happy relationship, to the disgust of the itinerant fishmonger. However, as well as being a superb entrepreneur, she has a wandering eye and she is attracted to the rich gangster with the scar. He owns a cinema, a novelty in the town. Initially she does not see the point but soon becomes a big John Wayne fan and the rich gangster’s lover.
Things go wrong with Geokjeong when he is injured but she remains devoted if not faithful to him and when she loses both men, things get worse. Geumbok travels around the country during a difficult period – the Korean War – and, four years later will give birth to Chunhui, whom we met at the beginning of the book. Geumbok is convinced that Geokjeong is the father though she has not seen him for four years, as Chunhui resembles him, at least as regards his size. She is alone when she goes into labour and creeps into a stable, in which the inhabitant is an elephant. The elephant is owned by identical twin sisters who used to work in a circus and rescued Jumbo. They now run a bar. Chunhui will remain unable to speak and unable to understand people. However, she will be able to communicate with the elephant without difficulty, even when it is dead.
Geumbeok and Chunhui will soon move on – to the village of Pyeongdae – where much of the action takes place. We follow Geombok, from running a restaurant to being one of the most powerful women in the region, thanks to her entrepreneurial skills. The narrator sums her up:
Geumbok wasn’t a thoughtful person. She was loyal to her emotions and believed in her intuitions to an absurd degree. She was the kind of person who was entranced by the image of a whale, indulged in coffee, lost herself in movies, and gave every part of herself to love. The word “moderation” didn’t apply to her. Her success owes a lot to luck.
A key piece of land she acquires well removed from Pyeongdae is where she will build a brickyard, manufacturing some of the finest bricks in the country. Chunhui cannot do much but she is strong and she will later become an expert brickmaker. Meanwhile, things go wrong again and the innocent Chunhui, who understands nothing, is the one who pays the price for a disaster. (We know who is really responsible). As we know from the beginning, she wil spend a lot of time in prison and only gets out when General Park Chung-hee grants an amnesty.
We now follow Chunhui’s story as she returns to the brickyard and makes thousands of bricks. Inevitably, various characters whom we had met previously, will make an appearance.
This is an incredibly complex story and though there are elements of realism and even historical events, there are also a host of fable-like elements from talking elephants to characters reappearing after they have died, from improbable superhumans like Geokjeong and Chunhui to numerous predictions, which come true. There is also very much a grim side. Pretty well every character, as well as a lot of extras, die, in most cases violently or, at least, unpleasantly. There is considerable brutality, some of which may well be partially based on fact. However, it is a superbly well-told story, original, highly imaginative, very complicated, both probable and improbable and, above all very readable
First published in 2004 by Kyŏnggi-do P’aju-si
First English translation in 2023 byArchipelago
Translated by Chi-Young Kim