At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong
[Content warning: Off-page suicide]
This is another installment in my Man Booker International longlist reading project. At Dusk is by Hwang Sok-yong, a renowned Korean writer of whom I was of course ignorant. He is both an author and a political activist and was imprisoned in the 1990s for having gone to North Korea. The novel is translated by Sora Kim-Russell.
This is a short but densely packed novel. Park Minwoo is a successful architect in his late middle age. Park was one of the only two children in his slum neighborhood who went to high school and he went on to attend the most prestigious university in South Korea. He is married and has a daughter, but his daughter settled in the US after her medical training and his wife went to stay with her and never returned. So while he’s materially and professionally successful, Park’s personal life is much less rewarding.
Alternating with Park’s story is that of Jung Woohee, a 29-year-old woman who directs plays in a small fringe theater and works in a convenience store at night to support herself. She has a mother and sister who live in another, smaller city whom she rarely sees. Woohee is committed to being an artist but wonders if she’ll ever escape her marginal existence. She lives in a mildewed bedsit and has one friend, the slightly older Kim Minwoo, who is also barely making it, working in contract construction jobs until recently when he was laid off. They’re not romantically involved, perhaps because they don’t see how they can make a joint life together, but they are close. They’re disaffected and frustrated but they both keep going.
So you have the older character who overcame his disadvantages and gained great success in South Korea’s celebrated economic and social transformation but who finds himself with little beyond money to show for it. And you have a millenial character who has grown up in this supposedly better world but can’t create a life that is both fulfilling and secure. If the point of the older generation’s efforts was to make a world in which succeeding generations could reap the benefits, Hwang makes it clear that that isn’t happening unless they are willing to leverage personal advantages and/or bend the rules.
The connection between the two storylines becomes clearer about two-thirds of the way through, when Woohee becomes friendly with Kim Minwoo’s mother, who has a childhood connection with Park. Slowly the stories merge, at first somewhat predictably and then in a way that took me by surprise.
This is a very melancholy novel. No one is really happy and the lives of the characters grow sadder as time goes on. Park’s affluent lifestyle can’t protect him from the consequences of the various choices he makes as he climbs the ladder of success, and his choices have had ramifications for many other people as well. It’s not so much that he can’t escape his past as that his present and other people’s futures are shaped by intended and unintended consequences of individual and collective decisions in the past. In that way it’s a universal story, or at least one that resonates beyond the South Korean context even though the novel is firmly rooted in that context.
The language is spare and direct, in a style that I’m getting more used to as I expand my reading of Japanese and Chinese authors. The characters aren’t deeply drawn but they came alive on the page for me. I am quite unfamiliar with Korean literature so I can’t place this in that critical and informational context or in the context of the author’s other work, but I found the book effective and moving, and I’d be happy to see it on the shortlist.