Kim Sagwa: 나b책 (b, Book and Me)
As the title tells us, this book is about three people b, Book and Rang, the me of the title. Books about school-aged children who find it difficult to fit in, who are bullied and who are somewhat different from the norm are not uncommon and this book follows, in general, a story line we have seen before.
The book has three sections. The first part has Rang narrating, though we do not know her name till later in the book. The second is narrated by b and the third by Rang again.
The three live in a small Korean town by the ocean. The ocean certainly has something of an influence on them. Rang, who like all good heroes/heroines of this type of book, is somewhat morbid, focusses on the grim side of the sea: the men who go out in boats and do not come back, the children who go out swimming and drown and those who walk into the sea to kill themselves. For her it seems to have the role both of a place to escape but also as a possible place to die. One of the key scenes is when she takes b into the water. Those who no longer play in the water are called adults.
The town is generally deemed to be boring. We all went to the same school, watched movies at the same movie theatre, and ate hamburgers at the same burger place. The dream is Seoul and, indeed, when they go on their annual school trip, it is to Seoul they go. Everything of interest in the town seems to be named Seoul and the one big event in the town is the new shopping mall, a scaled-down version of a Seoul mall. The city we lived in was ridiculous, because it was a city that imitated Seoul. But the more it imitated Seoul, the more it became not-Seoul and foolish. Most of the people we meet live in the main part of town but there is a poorer part of town known simply as The End, where the factory is. It is where the abandoned people go, says Rang. b lives between the main part and The End.
All three of our heroes our outsiders, misfits, if you will. Rang claims that the teachers do not like her but, worse, the boys take a dislike to her. These are particularly the baseball boys, the tough boys who play baseball and wear baseball caps, led by one called Washington Hat, because he wears a hat with Washington written on it. They spend much of their time bullying her, which involves punching and kicking her. To their annoyance, she does not cry or retaliate, but simply tries to get away. The teachers turn a blind eye. It is b who rescues her one time and the two become friends.
The friendship does not last as the class has to write an essay at school and Rang writes about b. I like b who is poor. I like b who doesn’t have anything. I like b who has a sick sister. b is mortally offended and walks out of the class. In her section later on, she will be very bitter about these remarks. The boys intensify their bullying and Rang is bruised and bloody. b no longer intervenes. Eventually Rang stays away from school, and the boys turn their attention to b.
As mentioned, b has a younger sister who has health problems. Despite this, b bullies her, the way she is bullied. In b’s section we follow her story – her detachment from her parents and the poverty of the family. This section is full of imaginative imagery, particularly the iron balls that hang from b, dragging her down. She manages to avoid much of the bullying by letting Washington Hat fondle her breasts.
In her wanderings through the town, Rang had inadvertently discovered Book’s hut in the forest, where he lives alone. It is full of books, hence his nickname. I don’t like people. I don’t like myself, either. I like books, he says and Yes. I want to go inside books. That’s my dream. I want to go in and never come out. The two girls will eventually both go and stay for a while with Book, not least because they feel that their paretns are indifferent to them. It is when Book goes to the city mental hospital, accompanied by the girls, that we see even more the dark side of the town.
This book is partially about the dark side of South Korea – the poor and their suffering (we see a strike and how it is brutally broken up), how parents, working hard to live the Korean Dream, effectively ignore their children and their children’s concerns and the mental health issues, buried away in the basement, of those who do not fit in and are not part of the Korean Dream. But we also see the story from the side of the misfits, what they feel and think and how they react. Rang tells us the story (very briefly) about what happens later when she grows up. Nothing was good anymore. The only thing left to do was turn into an adult. I just waited to turn into an adult.
First published 2011 by Changbi Publishers
First English translation by Two Lines Press in 2020
Translated by Sunny Jeong