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If I hadn’t been asked to review The Age of Doubt, I would have probably never encountered the work of Pak Kyongni. This would have been my loss. After reading this collection of short stories, it is easy to understand why the writer is one of the most celebrated figures in Korean literature. Containing seven stories, this book is a savage and touching exploration of the realities of life in post-civil-war Korea. The sentiment is perhaps best summed up when the protagonist of The Age of Darkness tells her mother: “You’re not the only one that longs to die. Who wants to live?”
Written in the 1950s and 1960s, many of the plots parallel events from Pak’s own life. The writer was herself a widow who lost a three-year-old child in an accident. In fact, Pak wrote in her memoir that she would never have become a writer had she been satisfied in life. And, while we see glimpses of war in The Age of Doubt, Pak is most interested in its aftermath, especially for the women who were often left widowed and destitute.
Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that Pak tackles extremely dark subject matter, with both The Age of Darkness and The Age of Doubt detailing horrific injuries to children. In the former, the protagonist’s son is hurt in an accident on a mountain. Although he is taken to hospital, the incompetence and materialism of the medical staff further endanger his life, with his mother commenting:
“Dirty bastards! Drunk and talking out of their asses while they operated on him. Running their knives over our only baby boy while drinking lemonade, flirting. You call this a hospital. […] I ought to set this place on fire.”
The title story follows a similar theme, as another widow loses her son to medical negligence. The night before his death, she dreams of a dead soldier “with hordes of flies attacking his entrails like flesh-eating demons.” In this piece, Pak also turns her satire on the greed of organised religion, as the main character temporarily seeks refuge in both Christianity and Buddhism. Both institutions, however, prove equally corrupt, with the protagonist observing that a Buddhist nun selling rice is “less interested in sad stories than in striking a deal.” In the world these characters inhabit, it would be naïve for them to place confidence in the institutions designed to protect them.
Amid the misery, however, there are moments of undeniable humour. In The Age of the Darkness, the main character contemplates ways to support herself, her children and elderly mother, concluding “the only possible way to seems to be to sell her body.” With a biting wit, Pak adds: “What defeats this idea is the not the baseness of the thought itself, but the fact she doesn’t know how to do even that.”
While Pak is writing about an era and setting of which I know shamefully little and presenting scenarios I can only imagine, one of the most striking aspects of her work is the extent to which I could relate to her characters. In the opening story, Calculations, the protagonist fixates on the awkwardness of outwardly insignificant social interactions. In one example, she is preoccupied by an encounter days earlier, in which a presumably well-intentioned stranger buys her a newspaper. Feeling too uneasy to simply thank him, she flings money at him and flees. This reminded me of occasions on which I have behaved in an equally irrational manner through social embarrassment, and then berated myself for weeks or even months after. In these passages, Pak taps into the inner monologues many of us experience every day, thousands of miles away from post-war Korea.
Another aspect of the collection I initially found surprising is that each story (and its final commentary) has a different translator, several of whom are among the most well-respected figures in Korean-to-English translation. In fact, one of these is Anton Hur, whom I interviewed for Litro last year about his brilliant translation of Love in the Big City.
When I discovered the stories have different translators, I suspected this would make the collection feel fragmented. However, this concern was unfounded. Having different translators brings a unique flavour to each piece and underlines the distinctiveness of Pak’s characters.
It is in the final story, The Sickness No Medicine Can Fix that Pak is, for me, at her finest. The story centres on an unhappily married couple, with the husband infatuated with another woman. However, other members of the venomous community in which they live also play an important role in the story as they routinely gossip about the infidelity. One of the husband’s friends insists that a woman should not be angry “just because her man went to bed with someone else” and adds “you’ve got to go at her like beating a dog for a summer feast.”
Where Pak excels is in the creation of often dislikeable characters consumed by the violence of their emotions and often deriving pleasure from others’ suffering. When the husband confides his misery to a pedlar woman: “The old woman smiled again, cruelly, like a crow that pecks and pokes at the sadness of others. As if getting to observe others’ sadness was her compensation for aging and misfortune.”
For me, the only misstep in the collection is its penultimate piece The Era of Fantasy, which at almost 100 pages could also be classified as a novella.The story focuses on a Korean student attending a school for both Korean and Japanese girls. As the plot progresses, the character becomes attracted to a younger female student. The type of relationship Pak describes is, as a footnote explains, referred to as an S-relationship and considered a healthy stage of female development.
While its themes are fascinating, The Era of Fantasy, at times, verges on a stream of consciousness. For me, this made it occasionally hard to follow and meant the characters lacked the vibrancy of the embittered couple in The Sickness No Medicine Can Fix. What the story does share with all the others in the collection though, is an often-enchanting lyricism in its language, with the school music teacher described as “spread[ing] his long fingers like a hand fan’s ribs, tapping to the beat” as “he would bristle up his eyebrows like moving caterpillars.”
If you’re keen to learn more about historical context behind Pak’s work, it is worth reading the book’s commentary from Professor Kang Ji Hee as it provides fascinating insights into the writer’s life. For instance, learning that Pak wrote The Age of Darkness on the day she visited her son in the crematorium makes the story feel even more raw. It is also interesting to read of the intersectionality of Pak’s later work. The professor explaining that Pak included both plots and characters from The Era of Fantasy and The Sickness No Medicine Can Fix in her novel Toji. Often regarded as her masterpiece, Pak’s exploration of Korea’s struggle against Japanese imperialism took her 25 years to write.
With the exception of The Era of Fantasy, I enjoyed each of the stories in The Age of Doubt. And although there is often little hope for her characters, Pak’s work is never self-indulgent or maudlin. For me, it seems the writer is simply being honest about the struggles of women in post-war Korea. In several pieces, she is depicting the version of ourselves that we become during the most harrowing moments of our lives. These are pockets of our minds that few writers probe, and even fewer with Pak’s beauty and brutality.
by Pak Kyongni
Translated from the Korean by Sophie Bowman, Anton Hur, Slin Jung, You Jeong Kim, Paige Aniyah Morris, Mattho Mandersloot, Emily Yae Won, Dasom Yang
Honford Star, 288 pages
Katy Ward is a freelance journalist from Hull. Her work has appeared in The Metro, The Overtake, LoveMONEY and Independent Voices. She has a BA in English from Oxford University and a postgraduate diploma from City University.