One Spoon on This Earth (1999, Hyun Ki-young, translated by Jennifer M. Lee)

Part I

Lying south of the Korean Peninsula, the island of Jeju (or Cheju) has historically been sufficiently isolated from the mainland to develop its own distinct culture and dialect (which is very difficult for mainlanders to understand). Hyun Ki-young was born there in 1941. His life was marked by poverty, ill-health and troubled family circumstances, as well as the impact of massacres and war. I’ve seen One Spoon on This Earth (the translation published part of the Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature series) variously classed as a novel and as a fictionalized memoir; clearly, it is heavily autobiographical; to what extent is has been fictionalized is something I don’t know (the narrator and protagonist shares a family name with the author, and says that he is a writer himself, so I assume we are to understand the narrator and author as being essentially one and the same). It’s a flawed work, made to seem worse than it must be in its original language by the poor quality of the translation (more on that later), but it’s vivid and engrossing. I have found myself thinking about it a great deal since I finished reading it, and there’s such a lot that I want to write about that I’ve decided to split the review into two parts. This first part will serve as a general overview, while the second will focus on Hyun’s treatment of memory and the passing of time. Given that most Western readers know very little about Korean history, it might be useful to begin by sketching the historical background to Hyun’s narrative, as his childhood bore the imprint of history more than do most childhoods.

At the time of the author’s birth, Korea had been a colony of Japan for more than thirty years. Japan’s wartime defeat saw its expulsion from the peninsula and from Jeju, but Koreans were freed from their occupiers only to have their country divided along the 38th parallel. For three years, the southern part was administered by America; then, in 1948, the Republic of Korea was founded, and Syngman Rhee (as he is generally known in the West) inaugurated as its first president. Rhee had spent the years of occupation mostly in the U.S.A., and, as a rabid, authoritarian anti-communist, his presidency was strongly backed by the American government. Though Rhee himself had been a pro-independence activist, many politicians, business leaders, military men and other important figures in the new state had collaborated enthusiastically with the Japanese – a state of affairs given American blessing because fighting communism was now deemed more important than purging fascism. In Jeju, many people resented the division of the country and the suppression of local democracy movements that had developed in resistance to Japan; they were angered by what they saw as the imposition of a U.S.-backed strongman as head of an illegitimate state whose reins remained largely in the hands of men who had, just a few years before, been in cahoots with their colonial oppressors. In April 1948, in response to police firing on demonstrators, police stations were attacked and violence spread rapidly. Soldiers and fascistic youth groups were sent from the mainland to put down the rebellion; the suppression became a killing spree, with perhaps as many as 30,000 deaths, and 70% of the island’s villages destroyed. For many years following the massacre, all public mention of the events was prohibited; Hyun Ki-young was once beaten by police for writing about it.

Mainland Korea suffered its own bloody catastrophe a few years later in the war of 1950-1953. Nowadays, in the West, the war is best known for being the backdrop to the film and TV series M*A*S*H*; the viciousness and destructiveness of the conflict are seldom appreciated by a public that has all but forgotten it. No fighting took place on Jeju, but the war reopened the wounds of the uprising, and drew away as soldiers many of the island’s young men, including the protagonist’s father.

It is with this father’s death that the book opens. This occurs when the narrator is middle-aged; he takes to reflecting on his own mortality and finds his mind being cast back to the scenes of his childhood. In an odd detail, what serves more than anything to provoke these reflections is the sight, when washing the body, of his father’s penis. This leads him to think in general terms of origins and of death, and also, in particular, of his own birth, which very nearly ends in death:

In the vast darkness, I felt a new life stirring. And that was me. I was a fruit of that darkness. After I came out of my mother’s womb, I was dying even before I let out my first cry. I was slapped in the cheek and my entire body was shaken but I was dying, turning charcoal black. Did I wish to return to that darkness?… In this moment of life and death my grandmother, who was frantically rubbing my stomach, felt something the size of a chestnut. She pressed hard thinking this might be it. As if she had pressed the button of an automated doll, at that moment my windpipe opened up and I cried out my first cry so loud that it hurt everyone’s eardrums.

After this inauspicious beginning, the writer survives much as a boy: the massacre, famine, drought, a severe outbreak of cholera, cracking his skull open after a fall, and a fever that leaves him incontinent, partially deaf and with an impaired sense of direction. In addition to this, he suffers, at various points, eczema, boils, warts, worms, scabs, scrofula, styes, frostbite and pleurisy (conditions usually caused or exacerbated, according to the author, by poverty and malnutrition). His hand is crushed by a runaway blacksmith’s wheel; he is plagued by lice, mites and mosquitoes; his groin swells after he trips over a rock; during fights, he loses teeth, fractures ribs and has his head dented by a flying rock. In addition to these crises of physical health, his mental health often seems precarious. As a young child he is melancholy, tearful, stammering and impulsive; as he grows into his teenage years, his behaviour also acquires a violent edge. He twice attempts suicide. The narrator seldom digs very deep in terms of psychological analysis; indeed, some of his speculations seem rather naive, such as when he ascribes his tearfulness to an overdeveloped lachrymal gland, or wonders whether his impulsiveness is due to a shortage of serotonin. Some of the forces shaping his psychological development are, however, pretty plain to see.

Such a communally traumatic event as the Jeju Massacre would seem bound to have a significant effect on sensitive individuals like the young, fictionalized author, but he does not witness directly the worst of the bloodshed, and, besides, the description of the killings occupies only one small portion of the book. As for economic privations, he only becomes conscious of his poverty as he gets older and comes into contact with better-off students. The author, usually implicitly, locates much of the blame for his mental troubles at the door of his family, but he also, every now and again, writes warmly and lovingly of that same family.

His parents’ marriage is certainly not happy. His father, whom we first meet as an aged invalid on the verge of death, is an elusive figure for much of his son’s childhood. He goes through a period of insanity, wandering around the island and seldom returning home. His behavior drives his wife back to her parents, leaving her son to be brought up by his paternal grandparents. When the father recovers, he goes to the mainland, first as a soldier, then in an attempt to make money. He almost never writes, and in his occasional meetings with his son, displays little affection towards him. He is selfish, compulsive and unreliable; he commits two horrendous acts of betrayal. And yet the middle-aged narrator repeatedly chastises himself for the anger he had displayed as a youngster, for his unfilial lack of piety. His perspective may have changed following his father’s death, of course, and there is always the weight of the Confucian tradition, which insists on obedient devotion to one’s parents (in particular, one’s father), to be borne in mind. Even so, the author’s apologies and self-reproaches often seem somewhat excessive, given how little the father did to deserve any reverence from his son. Near the very beginning, as he massages his dying father’s feet, he recalls how he used to do to the same as a boy:

What started out as an act of love later became a loathsome act of obligation. I used to be an obedient junior high school student, but I became a rebellious high school punk who clashed with my father in reckless conflicts. In other words, at the center of my father’s life of turmoil was my share of unfilial acts.

But the explanation here of how he began massaging his father’s feet – that it was, at first, an act of love – is later contradicted. When the father returns to the family home, his wife will not allow him to sleep in the same room as her, and so he sleeps in his son’s room. His frequent screaming nightmares about his wartime experiences disturb the boy, who displays little sympathy, and is suspicious of the man who had abandoned him. He is made to sleep at his father’s feet, which are washed as if ready for a massage. The narrative here implies that the father manipulates his son into offering the first massage, which from the very next night become obligatory. The boy does begin to feel good about doing it, but it seems more like the satisfaction one derives from an act of altruism than from an act of love. The author makes it clear, in any case, that at this point he did not love his father, that he regarded him with a mixture of fear and resentment. There’s a curious disconnect between how the narrator claims to retrospectively view his boyhood relationship with his father and how that relationship is actually depicted. In telling the story, his father’s faults are laid bare; in commenting on the story, they’re brushed aside so that the author’s boyhood self becomes the one at fault. It’s also rather astonishing that he thinks (or claims to think) that he was the to blame for most of his father’s unhappiness, for that is certainly not a suggestion the narrative can support. There may be some kind of performance for readers going on here; I don’t know. But it’s very strange.

Although he spends a few years being raised by his grandparents, the boy is essentially brought up by his mother, who is of a character familiar to anyone who’s read a few tales of impoverished childhood: hard-working, practical, thrifty, stern, harsh, unused to displaying affection. She frequently berates, belittles and humiliates her son, causing him real emotional distress; yet it is her strength that ensures his survival. There’s a telling passage about her ambivalence to education, which she initially views as costly and useless – and potentially worse than that, for, as she notes, during the massacre, it was the intellectuals who were the first to be killed. Her attitude is shaped by her class: so terrified is she of his teachers (her social superiors), that she never visits his school to check up on his progress. When a teacher attempts to pay her a visit, she locks up the house and pretends to be away.

Although, as a young child, he is largely unconscious of the fact, the boy’s life and the lives of most of the people on the island are circumscribed by their poverty. The childhood mortality rate is high; disease is common, and medical treatment, other than in the form of folk remedies, often unavailable. Food shortages are common, and even when there’s enough to eat, the diet is poor. There are some memorable details: people digging out shit from their anuses with their fingers because they’re too constipated to defecate, pork being such a luxury that it is treated more as a medicine than as a food, pregnant women sniffing burning pig hairs to sate their hunger, babies eating dirt from the ground. Life is hard, grinding and monotonous. One day of idleness in the summer can result, as the author writes, to ten days without food in the winter; this leaves parents little time to look after their children, who, when they are not helping or in school, are either entrusted to the care of the elderly or left to their own devices. The characters of the island’s inhabitants are rough. Parents are said to be entertained by hitting their kids, and will often hit them to no other purpose. Children address each other by nicknames such as Chicken Butt, Twisted Doughnut, Burnt Skin and, the author’s own, Shit Crab (named after an ugly, foul-tasting crab). They play rough games and use, as do the adults, earthy and insulting speech, and sing ribald songs (but not all of the traditional songs included in the book are ribald; some are rather beautiful).

Readers with delicate sensibilities are advised that One Spoon on This Earth contains a lot about bodily fluids – and solids. The author compares modern toilets with the traditional open-air stone seat overlooking a pigpen common to many rural households; he prefers the latter (I must say, I’ve seen toilets in Korea that might leave me open to persuasion on this point). He is given cause for concern, however, when, in mid-shit, an enormous worm emerges from his arse; he worries that, as the pig jumps up in an attempt to devour it, he might have his balls accidentally bitten off. Many readers, I’m sure, will be nodding in recognition here. There’s a lot more shit in this book, as well as piss, snot, drool and semen; the other major bodily fluid is blood.

The passage dealing with the massacre is the by far the grimmest portion of the book. The boy, for the most part, catches only glimpses of the full horror; few who witnessed the worst of it would have been allowed to live. The ideological divisions opened up by the rebellion and its suppression are stark, but sometimes don’t count for much; it is enough to live in the same village as a rebel, or to be related to one, to have your life snuffed out. Some incidents of violence are not described from the author’s own memory, but taken from historical accounts and the testimony of survivors. One particularly awful scene sees cold, hungry civilians, including women and children, being hunted like rabbits in the snow. Perhaps even more striking is the way Hyun conveys the sense of slowly accumulating dread and terror that spreads from village to village, the uncertainty of always having cause to fear that your family will be next. Horrible, too, is the ease with which children accept the new dispensation imposed by the government forces:

They intuitively followed and gravitated toward the strong, shifting their allegiances without any reservations… Similar to fascists, the only acceptable code of conduct in the children’s world was conformity. In order to win the confidence of the people, the fascists who seized power with weapons needed to curry favor with the children first and use them to promote and appeal to the general public.

The book is filled with sharp insights such as these. On the credit side are many fine details (a cousin’s shoes are ‘shined so well that a fly would slide off them‘), some well-drawn characterizations and a fascinating picture of a vanished way of life. It is vivid, naive, powerful, repetitive, unsophisticated, funny, upsetting, incisive, clumsy, contradictory, bizarre and utterly fascinating. It is quite unlike anything else I’ve read. So much the pity, therefore, that its qualities are, again and again, undermined by the translation.

First of all, there are the obvious errors: ‘alter boy’ for ‘altar boy’, a mix-up between ‘Confucian’ and ‘Confucius’, and others. As this review notes, there are innumerable instances of omitted commas causing confusion and absurdity; I also found a few commas where they shouldn’t be (e.g. ‘extremely salty, soy bean paste‘). Readers might frown at a few untranslated Korean words that are given no explanation. Word choices are sometimes inexact (cats don’t meow horribly at night; they yowl, growl, snarl and hiss). The biggest problem is a general awkwardness suggestive either of haste or of an insufficient familiarity with idiomatic English, leading to many, many strange and/or convoluted sentences. Here are some of the worst:

I was like green vegetables suffering from greenflies.
Why the plural for vegetables? Do vegetables suffer?

When I went to his home and saw a deformed arm looking thing on a turntable producing music, I was so surprised. I was in state of shock because I saw something I had not seen before. But I wasn’t envious because I knew it was something I could not easily attain with a little effort.
‘Deformed arm looking thing’ is woefully clumsy; ‘state of shock’ is missing the required indefinite article; I had to reread the last sentence a few times before I could make sense of it. I think what’s meant is something along the lines of: ‘But I wasn’t envious because I knew it wasn’t something I could obtain easily with only a minimum of effort’, i.e. he’s not interested in acquiring anything that takes an effort to get your hands on.

I could not hear either their cheerful and loud voices or the water splashing underwater.
Why ‘cheerful and loud voices’? Surely ‘loud, cheerful voices’ would be better. Also, the last part seems to indicate that water is being splashed underwater, which makes no sense.

His nickname became Sling because he got back at Lefty for having shoved his head in the water by throwing rocks at laundered linens hanging to dry and making holes.
Wait, could you run that past me again?

When he said “Attention!” one side of his mouth was twisted and when he said “At ease!” the opposite side.
Well, yes, I know what you’re trying to say.

I had not like the lukewarm water before, but strangely, afterwards I had come to like it.
This sentence makes a complete hash of the pluperfect.

I should note that I read One Spoon on This Earth in its Kindle version, so I don’t know if all the problems I’ve noted are shared by the paper edition, but the review I linked to above certainly found a great deal to complain about. It’s distressing that as respected a publisher as the Dalkey Archive Press should put out such a slipshod piece of work. I have no idea if the book, in its original language, is anything like a literary masterpiece; I’d be inclined to guess that it isn’t. But it is surely capable of being better served than it is here. As it is, I would still recommend the book as something very much worth reading, but let’s hope, nonetheless, that a better translation comes along one day.

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