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A Place Not So Distant or Beautiful
A Distant and Beautiful Place
Translated by Kim So-joung and Julie Pickering
University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu; 2003
Review by Jerry Winzig
The jacket cover to this collection of Yang Kwija's stories describes it as "compassionate and often humorous stories …. that depict the Korean people's unfailing optimism and love of life." In reality, her stories about the Wonmi-dong neighborhood in the satellite city of Puch'on west of Seoul are often haunting, melancholy, and even disturbing.
The stories take place in the 1980s, during South Korea's rapid drive toward industrialization and economic development,, but the stories vividly capture the difficult circumstances of individuals who face cultural challenges and personal limitations as well as changing economic circumstances. In addition, while the book is a collection of stories, they are all about the same Wonmi-dong neighborhood in the shadow of Wonmi Mountain, and the same people are woven through most of the stories.
"A Vagabond Mouse," for example, tells the tale of a young married man who is compulsively drawn to Wonmi Mountain. He begins spending more and more time in the woods. He begins to skip work and starts to spend nights on the mountain. Eventually, he abandons his job and his wife and young daughter and disappears into the deep woods of the mountain. However, much of the story, in which we keep wondering why this unnamed young man would come to feel so disconnected with his family and his work, unfolds as several men in the neighborhood play go, including Mr. Om of the Happiness Photo Studio, Mr. Kim of Brothers Supermarket, Mr. Chu of the wallpaper shop, and Mr. Pak from the Kangnam Real Estate Office.
The opening story, "A Distant and Beautiful Place," describes the circumstances of the family of a young girl name Unhye as they prepare to move to Wonmi-dong. As the father, the mover, and the mover's assistant struggle with one of the family's prize possessions, a large wooden wardrobe, we learn about how the family has already moved several times, each time to smaller quarters, and is now resorting to the extreme measure of moving outside of Seoul's city limits. The cold weather, Unhye's tears, the grandmother's nagging, and the long drive ridding in the back of the moving truck all combine for a mesmerizing story of people wandering in the midst of a large city.
In "The Spark," we learn about another young married man who has lost his job and is struggling mightily to learn how to be a door-to-door salesman. The story, however, is told in the details of his commute to and from work through chance encounters, his thoughts about food and housing and how he came to take a job for which he is quite unsuited, and the lies he tells his wife to keep her from discovering he hasn't sold a single thing and isn't making any money at all.
Perhaps the most disturbingly haunting story is "The Underground Man," which describes the daily circumstances of a young worker who rents a single, dank basement room and works in a small piecemeal shop -- also located in a basement -- that specializes in making floor mats for automobiles. The man's most difficult challenge is the fact that he has no bathroom facilities in his basement room and his landlady, in violation of his rental agreement, refuses to let him use her bathroom. As a result, every day becomes a desperate search for the man to find ways to take care of his most basic needs.
In reading the last story, "Cold Water Pass," we are left wondering whether this tale is at least partially autobiographical. It describes how the narrator, a woman writer, reacts when a childhood friend, Unja, calls her after many years and asks if they can get together. As the narrator struggles with her mixed emotions at the contact from her one-time friend, we learn about the narrator's family, especially her older brother's struggle with alcoholism after years of being the mainstay for all of his siblings. We also learn about the desperate circumstances of Unja's childhood, and what she has done in the years since.
The introduction says Kwija's writing "explores the modern urban experience in a changing society." I think the stories do much more than that. Certainly they capture the circumstances and personalities of individuals caught up in the urban experience in Seoul and its surrounding "satellite cities." More than that, however, Kwija's vivid imagery brings these people to life, and at the end of the book you will find you can't stop thinking about Mr. Om and Madam Hong, the tearoom woman, about Mr. Chu and Mr. Pak, two shopkeepers in Wonmi-dong, about Kyongju's mother and Yunhui, two single mothers who visit the zoo with their daughters, and about Unhye and her family. You will find them to be real people who live in a place that is really not so distant and at the same time is not always so beautiful.
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