Book Review of Hong Gildong
Hong Gildong by Seo Hajin is a collection of two short stories: “Hong Gildong” and “The Woodcutter and the Nymph.” The latter story is the female version of “Hong Gildong,” as “Hong Gildong” is the male version of “The Woodcutter and the Nymph.”
“Hong Gildong” should be called “Han Gildong” because of how the Korean “han,” or how the Koreans experience depression (sadness, anger, and other negative emotions), permeates every scene. Mr. Main Character is an odd man. He does foolish things like drive up to a police car when he’s drunk, which winds him up in jail. His version of depression, according to his psychiatrist, is like an obsessive-compulsive disorder, where suicide attempts become some weird habit. When he is in a good mood, the main character’s wife greets him with enough sarcasm to deflate any good mood he might have by saying such things like “Do you know what I hate most about being a woman? When I’m not at all hungry and have to cook for somebody else. And another thing—when I don’t want to have sex and feel I have to.” The best phrases to take out of the story is “There are safety belts in our lives and if you ignore them you’re sure to end up in an accident” and “The pain you experienced is like the fee you pay for expensive lessons.”
The main character, who goes unnamed, falls for a girl named Yeongu during his midlife crisis, which is understandable for a man his age to fall in love with a girl half his age. In fact, I myself had a short-lived romance with a man the age of my parents. He sees in Yeongju all the beauty of the world. Just by the way he describes her lashes as something that can “soar like mountain spires,” one can tell how he feels. He believed that the very act of seeing her made his life real. As with all stories, the reader anticipates some sort of closure from the romantic episodes. However, there is no closure to the romance. The only closure is no closure at all; the end of the story is just about the main character losing his sanity.
Besides the disappointing plot, I was disappointed in the author when I noticed that her chronology was incorrect. By the way the story is told, it seems that the forty-five year old main character waited until the fifth time he visited a psychiatrist to tell his story, but the author says that he waited until the fourth time, which means that the author forgot about the day after the third visit.
“The Woodcutter and the Nymph,” a modern version of Korean story “Namukkun-gwa seonnyeo,” evokes The Awakening by Kate Chopin or The Hours by Michael Cunningham, both about womanly depression. One is also reminded of how Brooke Shields battled post-partum depression. The young woman in this story, Jisu, winds up pregnant at far too young an age and gets married because of it. She is married to a man who has never been sick a day in his life, believing all the time in natural healing, when all of a sudden he catches a fatal illness during her pregnancy. Like a Korean adoptee, she struggles during her pregnancy with learning more about her Korean heritage by taking a course called, “A Correct Understanding of Your Homeland in 100 Days.”
She daydreams about her past and recalls his father’s girlfriend, a strange woman who would always feed her and her sister but would never sit down to talk and eat with the family. It seems a wonder that her father is having sexual relations with such a woman. Jisu had grown so used to the awkwardness that the unbearable had become bearable to her. Such contradictory ways of thinking become natural, like “doublethink” from 1984 by George Orwell. She begins to believe that life has nothing to do with living—that it is like a movie where your memory can delete bad scenes. This is partly because she begins to lose her memory while losing her hair from stress. She also believes that too much happiness leads to unhappiness. This is what happens when the happiness of her baby leads her to post-partum depression. She gives birth to a baby only to continue to feel as if another baby is still inside of her waiting to be free. Such a way of negative thinking reminds the reader of the first story, “Hong Gildong.” The theme of “The Woodcutter and the Nymph” seems to be lanquor, a melting, a softening, perhaps a giving up.
Hajin, Seo. Hong Gildong. Trans. Janet Hong and Leif Olsen. Ed. Bruce Fulton and Ross King. Seoul. Jimoondang Publishing Company: 2007.