I first heard about Hwang Sok-yong when his most recent novel, At Dusk, was long listed for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. It’s an annual award for a work of fiction translated into English and published in the UK and Ireland. The prize is awarded to both the novelist and the translator.
Although new to me Hwang Sok-yong is a renowned author, both in Korea and internationally.
At Dusk tells the story of Park Minwoo, a successful architect, who is approaching the end of his working life. He’s a poor boy made good on the back of the rapid growth and change that has occurred in his country during his lifetime. All that growth, all that progress, all that apparent success has come at a cost—as it so often seems. Park Minwoo’s wife and daughter live in the USA; he’s essentially estranged from them. The way of life he took for granted has gone. Even the neighbourhood where he grew up, where he learnt the street skills which he has drawn from during his career has disappeared, bull-dozed for developement.
Everyone says that things move slower in the countryside, but to those who have left it for the city, the countryside changes like a film on fast forward. While you’re busy debating whether or not to go back home for a visit, wondering if there is some compelling enough reason to go, ten years seem to flash by in a single day, the familiar faces all vanish, and the same buildings and scenery that you see in Seoul now occupy both sides of your town’s once quaint main street. (p 11)
As Park Minwoo grapples with finding some sort of meaning in his life, Hwang Sok-yong interweaves the alternative stories: the self-sacrifice of Park Minwoo’s parents to keep him in school; the alliances and friendships of Jaemyung and his brothers who teach Park Minwoo street smarts. And then there is the story of Soona, Park Minwoo’s first love. After he leaves home to go to university he falls in love with ambition. He ignores his promises to Soona, instead making a marriage that advances his career. Although she is a talented student Soona does not have such good fortune. Her luck seems to run constantly bad. She would have remained forgotten by Park Minwoo, nothing more than a faint memory from his youth, if it were not for her son’s erstwhile girlfriend who encourages Soona to contact her old friend.
At Dusk is a tale of corruption. It’s a tale of corporations, hungry for growth, gobbling up land, destroying neighbourhoods, ejecting the poor without regard to where they might go, how they might live. It’s an account of how Park Minwoo is corrupted over time, perhaps without his realisation. In the end, the landmarks of his life which might guide him onwards are quite gone.
This is a satisfying and thought-provoking novel which rewards careful reading. The writing is simple and yet loaded with meaning. This, about a common weed:
I noticed a flowerpot in the corridor outside her front door. It was overgrown with foxtails. They were yellowed and starting to wither, as if they’d been neglected for a while. I told myself she couldn’t possibly have planted them on purpose, that the seeds must have been blown into the pot by the wind and sprouted there. But at the same time, someone must have watered them for them to grow that lush in the first place. (p181)
Opening sentence: My lecture ended.
The Skinny has an illuminating interview with Hwang Sok-yong, in which he discusses his life, his activism, censorship, political imprisonment, and writing.
Long listed for the 2019 Man Booker International prize. The shortlist is announced in a few days time.
At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong Translated by Sora Kim-Russell (2018) Scribe Publications.
Categories: On Books