Seoul is a common setting for Korean novels. The city casts a beautiful background for stories and offers a complex platform that works with many different plots and genres. With every story set in Seoul, we are given insight into the city’s versatility and unique personality.
Despite being authors of very different books, Bae Suah and Hwang Sok-yong imbue their readers with contrasting facets of Seoul; one modern and hard to navigate — and the other a comparison of past and present.
In Bae Suah’s dream-like novel Untold Night And Day, we explore Seoul in the height of summer; this is a time when the intense heat fogs people’s minds, and even the most simple experience feels eerie and strange. Commonly described as a “fever-like” story, Untold Night And Day is a metaphysical detective story that focuses on the nature of seeking.
Rather than keep the city as a mere setting for her story, Bae Suah writes as if Seoul is one of the characters in her book.
In At Dusk, on the other hand, Hwang Sok-yong creates a window into Seoul’s present and past — giving us insight into the old, shanty neighbourhoods that once made up the now tourist-filled districts. Hwang also delves into the effects of urbanisation and gentrification in these neighbourhoods, highlighting how it changes the lives of those who live there.
UNTOLD NIGHT AND DAY
Inside the Life of Seoul’s “Invisible” People
Untold Night And Day is the fourth English-translated novel in Bae Suah’s repertoire. Born and raised in Seoul, Bae originally pursued a career in chemistry, only beginning to write short stories as a way to practise her typing. Now the proud author of twelve published works, Bae Suah is one of the many women at the helm of contemporary Korean literature, and is recognised for her sultry, imaginative and dream-like style of storytelling.
Although the book is only short, with the story itself spanning just two days, Bae manages to pull readers into the world she has crafted in Untold Night And Day.
The former actress Ayami was sitting on the second flight of stairs in the audio theatre, with the guestbook in her hand. She was alone.
At that point, nothing else had been made known.
In the very first paragraph we meet Ayami, our main character. Once a stage actress, Ayami has taken a step back from the limelight and, for the past two years, has been working in Seoul’s only audio theatre for the blind.
Even those who have lived in Seoul all their lives are unaware that this theatre even exists, so Ayami’s days at the theatre are often dull. Visitors to the theatre are limited to university students, high schoolers on field trips, and the blind.
When she isn’t working, Ayami takes German lessons with a woman named Yeoni who is initially just called the German-teacher. For two years, the pair have read novels or plays in German together, which is why Ayami feels she hasn’t progressed much with her language skills.
As the first chapter continues, we begin to feel Ayami’s apprehension over the time she’s spent—rather, wasted—at the audio theatre. This becomes more apparent when she has to get another job, since the theatre is closing down.
There is an underlying theme of self-worth throughout Untold Night And Day, especially in regards to jobs and a person’s lifestyle. For Ayami, her sense of self-worth plummets when she realises that her time at the audio theatre won’t help her get another job. It’s a sobering moment for Ayami, and her anxiety about her career slowly bubbles throughout the book.
This aspect of Bae Suah’s novel is a minor but important one; it highlights the pressure on younger Koreans to have success in their lives, careers, and relationships. But what society views as “success” is having a high-paying job, preferably in a large company, owning a house or apartment and to be married or, at least, in the process of getting married.
Since Ayami has no job, lacks quality experience to jump into a new career, is single and lives in a shabby, cramped flat, she feels disconnected from her contemporaries and the rest of the city. As far as society is concerned, Ayami has found no success in life—she belongs to a category of invisible people.
‘…I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to end up in the same category as me.’
The category of invisible people
…people who can’t be successful, who can’t convince others.’
The above conversation occurs in the first chapter, between Ayami and her boss — the director of the audio theatre and her only other coworker. During dinner at a ‘blackout restaurant,’ a place where diners eat their meals in complete darkness, Ayami and her boss have a long conversation spanning some fifteen pages.
Eating together in the pitch-black, the two discuss many things: hipster poets, what it means to have a soul and, in particular, their careers. At one point, Ayami ventures into the outside smoking area and her boss joins her. It’s here that Ayami’s boss gives her a short-but-heartfelt lecture on how she should make better plans for her future and to not rely so heavily on others.
Ayami’s boss describes himself as an ‘invisible’ person — one who doesn’t fall into society’s standard of success. From his words, we get the feeling that the theatre director has already given up on trying to find this “success,” but he doesn’t want Ayami to become like him. He wants her to succeed and avoid the lonely life of Seoul’s invisible people.
These invisible people and the pressure to succeed, by society’s standards, is the essence of Bae Suah’s Untold Night And Day.
Between the trance-like narration and hazy imaginative plot, with its flowery descriptions and often cryptic anecdotes, the true backbone of the story is the anxiety that comes with finding a career that’s right for you, the harsh reality of what it takes to “make it” in Seoul, and what happens to those who fall behind into society’s unseen category.
AT DUSK (해질 무렵)
A Window into Seoul’s Past
Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk is another short novel that, despite being only one-hundred and eighteen pages, manages to speak volumes about Korean society.
No stranger to political and social issues (no matter how taboo), Hwang doesn’t shy away from showing readers the costs of our actions. In At Dusk, Hwang asks readers to reevaluate the price we’ve paid to make way for modernisation and invites us to understand how Korea’s marginalised citizens have suffered at the hands of rapid urbanisation.
The story follows many characters, but is narrated by just two: Park Minwoo and Jung Woohee.
Park Minwoo is in the “dusk” of his life. His youth is long behind him, as are his wife and daughter who live in America. Although he’s come far from his humble upbringing in rural Yeongsan, Minwoo doesn’t feel accomplished with what he’s done with his life.
In the minds of those around him, however, Park Minwoo is the prime example of a ‘Korean success story’ — an ideal that usually depicts someone from a lower-class background who, against all odds, finds success in one of the big cities.
Born into a social class that was, for the most part, largely ignored by society, Minwoo grew up in the countryside before moving to the neglected hillside neighbourhood of Dongdaemun; though it wasn’t long before he and his family had to relocate once more, finally settling in the slums of Dalgol, or Moon Hollow. Here, Minwoo managed to receive a full education and, despite some minor gang-involvement, moved on from his humble upbringing to become the director of a large architectural firm.
The evolution of Park Minwoo’s life is, in every way, the standard Korean success story. In a time where every one of his roads seemed to be blocked by society, Minwoo secured his future and left whatever hardships and humiliation he experienced behind him.
As we learn more about Minwoo, we begin to see that he is unsatisfied with his success. Despite coming so far from Moon Hollow, Minwoo is weighed down by the feelings that he shouldn’t have completely cut himself away from his humble roots.
One of his regrets involve a woman named Cha Soona. She, too, grew up in Moon Hollow, working in her parent’s noodle house, and like Minwoo, Soona was the only other kid in the neighbourhood who was attending high school. Over their childhood years, Minwoo and Soona struck up a friendship and soft-romance that they maintained until they entered into adulthood.
But their paths stretched in opposite directions. Whilst Minwoo was desperate to get out of Moon Hollow and find success for himself, Soona was indefinitely tethered to their neighbourhood—Minwoo knew if he stayed with Soona, he would never leave Moon Hollow.
In the end, the two part ways and went on with their respective lives. Their paths remained separate until one day, after Minwoo’s lecture—‘Urban Design and the Development of Old City Centres’— he is greeted by a young woman who hands him a note. On it is the name Cha Soona and a phone number.
From then on, Minwoo is propelled into his past and, through email correspondence, he learns of Soona’s story, what events brought her and her family to Moon Hollow, and what her life has been like since.
From Minwoo’s perspective, readers are shown a window into Seoul’s past. Rather than glimpse into the lives of those in Moon Hollow, we are completely transported there, gazing deeply into their humble-yet-full lives and understanding the struggles they endured in the face of Seoul’s rapid urbanisation.
Our generation poured its energy into redevelopment of slums and the creation of concrete mountains covered in box-like apartments.
But we paid a heavy price for it. We drove our neighbours into a space of distorted desire.
Architecture is not the destruction of memory, it is the delicate restructuring of people’s lives on top of a sketch of those memories.
We have already failed at achieving that dream.
This is another of Minwoo’s primary struggles — his guilt of being involved in deconstructing the lives of the very people he himself grew up in. His own aged neighbourhood of Moon Hollow is now unrecognisable to him and his hometown in Yeongsan is on its way to “becoming a ghost town.” For Minwoo, the dusk of his life is plagued with regret, guilt, and internal turmoil that he could have, and should have, done things differently.
Jung Woohee, on the other hand, is still hurtling through her youth. Much like Ayami in Untold Night And Day, Woohee does part-time work in a theatre — writing screenplays and directing here and there. Also like Ayami, Woohee is teetering on the edge of becoming an “invisible person.” She, too, is unsure of where she is going and, like Minwoo, is debating whether she should have done things differently.
When she isn’t slaving away at her small basement theatre, Woohee is working the graveyard shift at a convenience store. With many silent hours on her hands, Woohee is often greeted with memories of past experiences and people.
One person who she constantly thinks about is Cha Minwoo, who she affectionately calls Black Shirt. Though we don’t know much about him at first, we learn that he worked briefly with Woohee at a pizza house and the two became romantically involved. As the story progresses, we come to understand fully who Cha Minwoo is and why Woohee seems so plagued by his memory.
Whenever I look back on the past, everything is fuzzy. Nothing In particular stands out. F**k, how did I get so old already?
When I look at friends who are older than me, they don’t seem much better off. If anything, they look just as hopeless.
As for marriage, I used to fantasise about that from time to time, but the idea of becoming some man’s wife seems as difficult, as impossible even, as achieving my tiny hope of one day being able to have a pet.
From these words, we see that Woohee is going through an early mid-life crisis, unsure of where to go and what to do.
Woohee’s perspective presents a voice for the modern Korean youth, one of the many who are other fighting against becoming invisible or who are just about ready to accept the fact they will never succeed the way society wants them to.
Both Hwang Sok-yong and Bae Suah’s novels capture different sides of Seoul and the people who live there. On one hand we have those who found success and are accepted by society, but regret the road they took to get there, and on the other hand there are those who have been left behind by the city: the indivisible people.
Feature Image Source: ©️Photo by Claudia Deborah, 04.03.2020