“The Specters of Algeria”
By Hwang Yeo-jung, Translated by Jung Ye-won
165 pages, £13.99, Honford Star, 2023
On the Impossibility of Knowing
IN 1882, an ailing Karl Marx traveled to Algeria to benefit from the Mediterranean climate. Unfortunately, the weather would not be as salubrious as he had hoped; he ultimately failed to recover. Nevertheless, while in Algeria, Marx rediscovered his passion for writing plays and penned the only dramatic work ever to bear his name: The Specters of Algeria.
Marx died soon after in London. One hundred years later, Pak Seonwu discovered the play at a secondhand bookshop in Paris and brought it to South Korea, a nation still in the grip of ideological paranoia. It was only a matter of time before he and his friends would run afoul of the authorities.
The Specters of Algeria refers not only to this long-lost play by Marx, but also to the last play staged by legendary playwright Tak Osu before he retired to open a bar called “Algeria” on Jeju Island. Lastly, of course, it is also the title of Hwang Yeo Jung’s prize-winning debut novel. These overlapping layers function as a metaphor for the novel itself, a delicately crafted puzzle box that reveals nothing at first glance and invites the reader to tease out the implications of the layered narrative, poking and prodding at the box to discover its secrets.
The novel is divided into four parts, which are narrated by three different characters. “Yul’s Story” follows a young woman as she grows up in the shadow of the play, trying to make sense of the lives of her parents as well as her own. “Cheolsu’s Story” narrates the journey of an uncertain young man as he searches for the truth. “Osu’s Story” consolidates the scattered pieces of the narrative into a possible explanation. The final part returns to Yul as the story takes yet another turn. In some ways, these different perspectives complement each other to paint a more complete picture of what happened, while in other ways they resemble the parable of the blind men trying to describe an elephant—each is influenced by their experience, and none of them has the whole truth. Even Osu, who might appear to have all the answers, seems more concerned with the truth-seeker Cheolsu’s beliefs than with any objective truth. “Every story is a mixture of truth and lies,” he says. “Even when people see and hear the same thing at the same place, they recollect it differently. Sometimes, even what you hear and see and experience for yourself isn’t true.” Though Yul seems to be the character least interested in the play itself, in the end it is she who reassembles the many threads of the narrative. But the result is merely a collection of frayed ends, not a neat and tidy knot.
Hwang’s skill as a storyteller is on full display here as she leads us along, revealing enough to pique our interest and curiosity but never laying all her cards on the table. We want to know what really happened, what it all means in the end, but Hwang eschews easy answers. Just as every story is a mixture of truth and lies, so every story is also a kaleidoscope, shards of light refracted through the eyes of whoever happens to be living it. Ultimately, it is impossible to ever know the “truth” of something—and even if we manage to find something resembling truth, that might not be what matters after all. The Specters of Algeria proves the adage that the journey is more important than the destination; this journey is one that will leave the reader with much to ponder
“I’ll Give You All My Promenade”
By Jeong Woo-shin, Translated by Susan K
71 pages, ₩9,500, ASIA Publishers, 2022
The Price of Remembrance
JEONG WOO-SHIN’S collection of new poems, I’ll Give You All My Promenade, takes the reader on a journey of loss, mourning, and the emptiness that follows. It evokes the emotions one feels when walking through the ruins of a once great city, except that this city is a world built by the poet with his beloved, the “you” to whom many of the poems are addressed. This beloved is no longer among the living, and yet remains in everything that is indelibly etched in the poet’s memories, including the spot where the beloved once stayed; the streets where the poet and his beloved once walked together; and the window from which the beloved once stared out. Yet flowers still bloom and wither as they always do. A hair salon closes, and a real estate office opens in its place. In a world that stubbornly refuses to stand still, the poet chooses the pain of remembrance over the healing of oblivion, memorializing that pain and his beloved in this touching collection. The poems represent a promenade worth taking and memories worth sharing.
“Imagine Your Korea”
A Smorgasbord of Delights from Korea
THIS YOUTUBE CHANNEL, operated by the Korea Tourism Organization, features a plethora of videos that introduce Korean cities in new and creative ways. The Feel the Rhythm of Korea series highlights popular destinations around the country, leading viewers on energetic tours set to music by Korean artists. The earliest entries showcase the infectious fusion vibes of LEENALCHI punctuated by the eclectic moves of the Ambiguous Dance Company, while the most recent entries are curated by members of K-pop sensation BTS. There are also plenty of videos for Hallyu fans, including tours of Hallyu locations and introductions to Hallyu experiences. Taking a different tack, the Oddly Satisfying Korea series highlights aspects of Korean life and culture that are pleasing to both the eye and the ear. And if you are a fan of international football, there are even a few videos with Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min. There is a little something for everyone, and most of the videos are short and sweet, providing viewers with quick peeks into areas of interest.