by Hwang Sok-Yong
Genre: Literary fiction
And so, it begins!
This is my first review for the Man Booker International Prize 2019 longlist (#MBI2019), as part of the Shadow Panel.
I begin today with At Dusk, translated from the Korean.
The reason I started reading this one is just that it was the first book on the list I was able to get right away. And that will be my criterion for reading the list: I’ll just read the books as they come my way.
Hwang Sok-yong is presented as South Korea’s most renowned novelist. He has won many literary awards in his country and abroad.
After a lecture on ‘Urban Design and the Development of Old City Centres’, Park Minwoo, now the head of a major architecture firm, receives a note inviting him to reconnect with a childhood friend. This launches him into revisiting his past and his background. He actually grew up in Moon Hollow, a very poor slum outside of Dongdaemun Market, a large commercial district in Jongno-gu, Seoul.
Escaping the poverty of that terrible hillside slum and living a completely different life was a miracle in and of itself.
My job had been to shove their memories together into one big pile, sweep them away, and obliterate them.
But has he ever left his slum? Is his successful career able to take him away forever from the poverty he experienced there? And has he professionally done anything to benefit the people living there?
Being ambitious means having to sift out the few values we feel like keeping and toss the rest, or twist them to suit ourselves.
At the same time, we follow Jung Woohee’s life, 29, a woman struggling in the theater world.
The theme of place is doubly important here, as it has personally shaped the author himself: after fleeing to several countries, Hwang Sok-yong realized he had to go back to South Korea, even though this entailed spending years in prison.
I know nothing about South Korean society, but the book seemed to give me some good overview of it, as well as of its former political life, for instance with the little food shops, gambling dens, dictatorship and its re-education camps; real estate companies tearing down slums, and their residents having nowhere to go.
However, I struggled at times with the confusion between the different story lines, until they finally connected, and I didn’t find the writing style very compelling either.
Should it be on the MB12019 shortlist?
No, I don’t think so.
Still, I am ready to try another book by the same author.
VERDICT: Two story lines connecting to portray South Korean culture in all its grittiness.
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK?
Any other Korean novelist you would recommend?
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