Korean American Books

Summaries and reviews of fiction and nonfiction books by Korean American authors,
books about Korean Americans and Korea, and Korean literature in English translation,
including some academic works and a sampling on the Korean War

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Waves, by Kang Shin-jae

Young-sil is a ten-year-old girl in the village of Wonjin during the Japanese occupation. She isn’t terribly likable: her character is described as selfish, sometimes grasping, stubborn, confused and petulant. Her passionate emotions are drawn with fire and ice, nearly bipolar in extremes. The story follows Young-sil and village life for a year, throughout the seasons, covering her sister’s wedding, her own burgeoning crush on a handsome ne’er-do-well who plays the harmonica, the sudden disappearance of two youths, death of a doctor, madness in the fire chief, and school days and a church play. The characters are many and various, from the town prostitute, to the old storytelling man, to her many schoolmates, their parents, the rich man in town, the simpleton, the long-suffering women, etc. It is less a story than an experience of the village and all its various people and the drama and gossip they live day to day. Affairs, suicides, mistaken identities, miscommunications, missed opportunities, laziness, thrift, poverty, betrayal, brutality, abuse—sorrows upon sorrows abound. A revelation comes at the end which merely compounds the confusion and sorry. The narrative is somewhat hard to follow in the Western tradition of readability, as it is structurally more associative, free-wheeling, than linear, and the translation seems to belabor the allusive quality further. While some of the descriptions of nature and passion are rich and varied, much of the writing is expository, making it hard to keep track of the numerous characters who we are told about rather than experiencing them in a setting. To see this adult world mostly through the child’s eyes gives a distant to emotional impact of the constant and multiple misfortunes that befell this village—all tragically the normal course of village life. The jacket says the author is one of Korea’s most distinguished women writers, winning literary and cultural prizes in 1967 and 1984. I cannot find out when the original text was written. Translated 1989 by Tina L. Sallee.

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