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Books & More


By Cheon Myeong-kwan, Translated by Chi-Young Kim
365 pages, $22.00, Archipelago Books, 2023

A Tapestry Woven on the Loom of Fate

“Whale” book cover

Cheon Myeong-kwan’s Whale spans generations, weaving a tale of two mothers and two daughters whose lives are entangled by the skeins of fate. We begin with Chunhui, an unusually large girl returning home years after a terrible tragedy, and an old crone who curses the world for its cruelty toward her. Then we are taken back through time to the Japanese occupation period and the childhood of Chunhui’s mother, Geumbok. Even at a young age, she has been endowed with both a figure and a scent that men cannot resist, but she is no victim of their desires. She lets nothing stand in the way of her grand dreams and plans, and everything she puts her hand to succeeds. She starts a fish-drying business in a coastal village that earns her a fortune, but she knows she is meant for bigger and better things. She moves to Pyeongdae and, when a near tragedy turns into a windfall, she opens a brickyard and later achieves her ultimate dream: building a cinema in the shape of a whale, the majestic creature she first saw in that coastal village. But just when it seems she has the world at her feet, the entanglements begin to draw her into a web of prophecy. How will her ultimate fate transpire on the stage that she herself has built?

Whale is a novel that is impossible to wrap up in a neat and tidy package. Countless characters are introduced, and their lives are all connected in strange and unexpected ways. Even characters that have seemingly exited the stage for the last time return, often changed but still bound by their fate. And this is a theme that hangs over the narrative like the pendulum of a clock: the idea that fate, no matter how hard we may try to defy it, will ultimately have its way. The author achieves this effect in several ways. There is, for one, constant foreshadowing of events that will befall the different characters. The narrator is also fond of explaining outcomes in terms of various “laws,” such as the law of love, the law of reflexes, the law of stupidity, the law of ideology, the law of capitalism, and even the law of overconfidence. All of these laws establish a narrative universe in which cause and effect are clearly connected, a universe in which human intent and actions have preordained consequences . And while the story spans some of the most painful decades of Korean history, from the Japanese occupation period through the Korean War and into the era of military dictatorships, this use of foreshadowing and “laws” by the author makes it feel timeless. Time is collapsed, as if we are looking at a tapestry that tells a story from left to right; there is indeed an order and a progression of events, but everything can be seen in one glance. Thus, when we finally arrive at the end of this epic tale, we are left with the sense that we have been given a glimpse into a great mystery, one that we may never fully understand but which is no less profound.

“Phantom Pain Wings”

Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi
208 pages, $18.95, New Directions Books, 2023

A Ventriloquist Gives Voice to the Sky

Phantom Pain Wings 책 표지

Given the title of this collection of poetry by Kim Hyesoon, it should be no surprise that birds play a pivotal role. While we may often associate birds with their gracefulness in flight or their beautiful singing, in these poems the poet-as-bird (or is it bird-as-poet?) walks on the ground in high heels, is ashamed of her huge wings, and wears her dress like a birdcage. Birds often end up in cages, to be gazed upon. They are also seen as manifestations of the souls of the dead in many cultures, which is appropriate given the outpouring of raw grief at the loss of loved ones and the tragedies of life.

In her essay at the end of the volume, Kim speaks of repurposing the techniques of ventriloquism, which was often used by male poets during the occupation period to put their voices in the mouths of women. The term seems particularly apt, especially when we consider that it literally means “speaking from the belly” (this meaning is also preserved in bokhwasul, the Korean term for ventriloquism), and that in ancient Greece it was associated with spiritual inspiration or possession. She may not offer comfort, but like a shaman possessed, like a poet giving voice to the breath of the sky, Kim elevates us nonetheless.

“The Gleam”

Metaphor of Light

Available at: https://parkjiha.bandcamp.com/album/the-gleam

The Gleam cover

Park Ji-ha’s album The Gleam (2022) contains a beautiful metaphor for light. The first sounds are from traditional Korean instruments: the piri, a type of oboe; the saenghwang, a mouth organ; and the yanggeum, a hammered dulcimer. The light sound extends and scatters in unpredictable directions, creating a distant time and space.

When the sound is sustained for a long time, the vibration slightly changes and falls into a gentle curve with remote reverberations. A delicately designed sense of space that is unhurried leads to deep stillness and inner silence.

Park played for nine years with gayageum player Seo Jung-min in a duo called “suːm” that delved deeply into the grammar of traditional Korean music. With her solo album, she has solidified her position in minimalism and ambient music.

For The Gleam, Park adopted a method of repeating and overlapping musical materials and patterns, an extension of her previous albums Communion (2016) and Philos (2018). Park explores new textures of sound by playing the strings of the yanggeum in an atypical way; she uses a bow and her fingernails to sharp sounds. The aim is not to showcase novel techniques. Rather, the performance attempts to spotlight the creation of heterogeneous sensations by expanding the dynamics of sound that can be realized with musical instruments.

Another effective keyword in understanding this album is space. Museum San, located in Wonju, Gangwon Province, played an important role in conceiving this album. Part of the “Temporary Inertia” performance for the museum’s 2020 Art Spot Series was developed for The Gleam.

Museum San was designed by world-renowned architect Tadao Ando. Its acoustics are carefully considered in the minimalist arrangement of condensed sounds found throughout the music. For Park, space does not just serve as background where a performance takes place. She includes it as an element and material of her music. At the end of the music, which captures various forms of light and afterimages, we arrive at the following question: What will light leave behind for us?

Charles La Shure Professor, Department of Korean Language andLiterature, Seoul National University


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