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녹천에는 똥이 많다

Title/Author/Genre

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    Title: Nokcheon Has Fields of Shit

    Author: Lee, Chang-dong

    Genre: Fiction (Story Collection)

     

    LTI Korea staff: Alex Baek (alex_b@klti.or.kr / +82-2-6919-7733)

Description

  • About the book

    Nokcheon Has Fields of Shit (1992), Lee Chang-dong’s second story collection, includes three short stories (“On Destiny,” “Leper,” and “Real Men”) and two novellas (“Nokcheon Has Fields of Shit” and “The Lamp in the Sky”). Lee received the Lee Sang Literary Award Runner-up Prize (1991) for “On Destiny” and the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award (1992) for “Nockcheon Has Fields of Shit.” In all of these five stories, major events and facts in Korean society, which are firmly established and generally never challenged, are treated with suspicion and exposed as deception. The characters’ quest for true values often turns into miserable and senseless battles with both life and self. Recognizing this irony is one of the great pleasures of reading Lee’s stories. While explicit in exposing social ills and absurdities as well as human weaknesses and vices, the stories in this collection are told with the deepest levels of human sympathy. Reading them is an enduring experience, both sad and beautiful.

     

    In “The Lamp in the Sky,” the narrator, Shin-hye, is a student activist going through a serious identity crisis. Due to her failure to identify with the workers or the people, despite her chronic poverty, she approaches her student activism with doubts and conflicted feelings, rather than confidence. Raised by a single mother, Shin-hye works at a coffee shop in a mining town to make money for tuition. She is under pressure from her mother to become a primary school teacher, from her fellow student activists to be a fighter of conviction, and from the police to be an agitator working undercover in the mining town. “All of you are forcing me to be someone I’m not!” Shin-hye protests, in silence. The novella consists of her letters, which read like confessions, interspliced with the descriptions of several present and past events as she remembers them. Later, a riot occurs in the mining town, prompting the police to bring in Shin-hye for rebelling against society. While physically wrecked by brutal torture, Shin-hye finds some mental clarity, resigning herself to a revelation, embodied in the novella’s last scene, where she visits the house of an old miner, Choi, who has been killed in a cave-in. By way of condolence, she offers all the money she has made prostituting herself, and heads to the train station, carrying only the same vinyl bag that she brought with her to the town.

     

    “Nokcheon Has Fields of Shit” can be compared to the 1959 short story “An Aimless Bullet” by Lee Beom-seok for its dramatic ending and excellent description of the characters’ changing psychology. The protagonist, Hong Jun-sik, is a school teacher who started out as a school clerk but worked his way up by putting himself through evening school. He has a wife and young daughter, as well as a small working-class person’s apartment in the newly developed town of Sanggye-dong. Jun-sik’s ordinary, peaceful life is disrupted by the arrival of his half-brother, Min-woo, who shows up for the first time in ten years and insists on staying for a few days. As it turns out, Min-woo is on the run from the police. Growing up, Min-woo was different from Jun-sik in many ways. The more stylish and attention seeking of the two, Min-woo was also smart enough to be admitted to Seoul National University, and seemed set for life until things took a turn for the worse after he became a student activist involved in the labor and social movements. Jun-sik brings Min-woo to his apartment in a complex surrounded by fields of shit that remain undeveloped. Min-woo is not welcomed by Jun-sik’s wife, who does not hide her contempt for the smelly brother in his shabby clothes. However, it takes Min-woo just two days to win her favor. As his wife becomes increasingly beauty conscious and attentive to his half-brother, comparing the two of them, Jun-sik begins to feel jealous. Despite his best efforts to please his wife and daughter, for whom he has worked hard to build a stable, lower middle class life in the outskirts of Seoul, Jun-sik feels that neither his family, his coworkers, nor his half-brother fully understand him. This is due to the long-held, deep-seated conflict between the brothers that arose from their complex family situation and has remained unresolved. Jun-sik’s family consisted of a school teacher father – an honest type, straight as an arrow, at least on the surface – and a strong mother who supported her family by running a market stall. When another ‘mother’ was added, it was no longer a family in a traditional sense, and Jun-sik found himself the object of comparison with his half-brother, who refused to integrate into his new family.

     

    Feeling distant from his wife, and after an embarrassing episode with his fellow school teachers at a bar, Jun-sik becomes tired of everything and decides to report his ‘uninvited guest’ to the detective who visited him at school to inquire about his half-brother. Jun-sik takes Min-woo to Nokcheon Station – the place they met when he arrived. On seeing the detectives there, the pair run away, hand-in-hand. Eventually, the detectives catch Min-woo and take him away, leaving Jun-sik squatting in the field of shit near to the station. Jun-sik breaks down crying, as if completely giving in to the years of sadness and his own sense of futility. As the hot tears stream down his contorted face, he asks himself soul-searching questions: How futile is it to live a life built on lies and heaps of garbage? What does it mean to live with dignity?   

     

    “On Destiny” is a masterpiece that also deals with complex structural absurdities in which life’s truths and lies are intertwined. The protagonist, Kim Heung-nam, is involved in a plot to cheat a wealthy old man out of his inheritance by claiming to be his lost son, Kim Kwang-il. In an incredible twist, the real name of the old man’s lost son turns out to be Heung-nam, rather than Kwang-il, which was only used in the family register. In other words, Heung-nam really is the old man’s lost son. This creates a huge irony: Heung-nam becomes fake if he pretends to be real by adopting the name Kwang-il instead of using his real name. Only when Heung-nam admits that he is fake and reverts to his real name can he become the old man’s real son. Unfortunately for Heung-nam, the old man dies of a heart attack before the truth is uncovered. While Kwang-il remains the eligible heir to the wealthy old man’s billions, Heung-nam is dismissed as an imposter. He is driven crazy by this situation in which real and fake identities are crossed and re-crossed. Instead of the old man’s enormous fortune, which he was originally after but which has now fallen into someone else’s hands, Heung-nam ends up with the old man’s beloved watch. Seeing it as a work of destiny, Heung-nam slowly restores his trust in human beings and begins to regain his sanity.

     

    In “Leper,” the protagonist, Kim Hak-gyu, has been an outcast – a leper – all his life. In his youth, he was a South Korean Labor Party member involved in the communist movement, for which he served time after the Korean War. Despite his unwavering commitment to Marxism – he named his son Mak-su, after Marx – Kim Hak-gyu has failed to live out his faith. Instead, he has succeeded in isolating himself from South Korean capitalist society by turning to drink and refusing to earn any money, even for the bare necessities of life. One day, his family is dismayed when he claims to be guilty of ‘espionage.’ As a son, Mak-su finds it impossible to understand his father – a coward and a loser who has only inflicted pain on his family by placing the burden of making a living on the shoulders of his mother, forcing her to be enslaved by money. Mak-su sees his father’s sudden move to ‘play a spy’ as a feeble-minded attempt to deny his life and escape from reality.

     

    “Real Men” tells the story of an ignorant working-class man, Jang Byeong-man, who wakes up to reality and goes on to transform himself into a democracy fighter but loses his innocence in the process. (See Translator’s Note below for more.)

     

    *1980s Korean Society in Literature

    For the Republic of Korea, the 1980s was a remarkable decade in which the nation achieved both economic growth and democracy. The country hosted the Summer Olympics in Seoul, and directly elected a president for the first time in its history. It is said that few other countries have achieved such a feat in such a short period of time.

     

    Three decades later, many Koreans who grew up in the 1980s are beginning to look back on that period with nostalgia. (“Reply 1988,” a recent TV series set in 1988, was popular for this reason.) I, for one, find myself digging up old books to refresh my memory of what it was like to live in Korea in the 1980s. One of those books is Nokcheon Has Fields of Shit, a story collection by Lee Chang-dong, who is better known these days as a filmmaker.

     

    Nokcheon Has Fields of Shit is a good example of 80s Korean literature that provides insight into Korean society of that decade. This is particularly true of “Real Men,” the first story in the collection and fully translated into English, which unfolds against the background of a series of historic events that occurred in Korea from June 1987 onwards and which played pivotal roles in the democratization of the nation. The narrator talks about “June that year” without specifying which year that was, assuming that “everyone knows,” although, almost three decades later, this may no longer be the case – for foreigners and younger Koreans alike. In reading “Real Men,” the reader gets a glimpse into the events that shaped the history of the democratization of Korea during the 1980s, such as the June 10 Rally, the June 29 Declaration, the deaths of the college students Park Jong-cheol and Lee Han-yeol, and the first direct presidential election.

     

    Re-reading Lee Chang-dong’s stories, I found them as compelling and relevant today as they were the first time around. Now, with some added perspective, Lee’s stories give me greater insight into the events of the 1980s and their impact on the Korean people.

     

    International readers who are interested in Korean society in general and Korean literature of the 1980s (or any other decade, for that matter), especially those who have only known Lee as a filmmaker, are invited to explore his less well-known story collection. Fans of Lee’s films will be pleasantly surprised to find him as absorbing and thought-provoking on the page as he is on the screen. I had a similar, mirror-image experience when discovering that the writer I knew so well and respected had turned his hand to filmmaking.

    About the author

    Born in 1954 in Daegu, Lee Chang-dong started teaching Korean in high school in 1981 after graduating from the Department of Korean Education at Kyungpook National University in 1980. His literary career began in 1983 when his novella “Trophy” won The Dong-A Ilbo New Writers Contest. He continued teaching until 1987. His story collection Burning the Paper, which included “Cord,” made his name in literary circles. Lee established himself as an award-winning, critically acclaimed author for his stories “On Destiny” and “Nokcheon Has Fields of Shit,” which won the Lee Sang Literary Award Runner-up Prize in 1991 and the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award in 1992, respectively.

    In 1993, Lee Chang-dong turned to filmmaking as the writer and assistant director of To the Starry Island, directed by Park Kwang-su. Lee also wrote A Single Spark, a 1995 film for which he won that year’s Baeksang Arts Award for Best Screenplay.

    In 1996, together with actors Mun Seong-geun and Myeong Kye-nam and director Yeo Gyun-dong, Lee founded a production company, East Film. Green Fish, East Film’s first production, marked Lee’s directorial debut aged 43, which is considered old for a new director. In the year of its release, Green Fish swept the awards at the major Korean film festivals, including the Baeksang Arts Awards for Best Film, Best New Director, and Best Screenplay; the Korean Association of Film Critics Award for Best Film; the Special Jury Prize at the Grand Bell Awards; and the Blue Dragon Film Award for Best Film. Green Fish was also invited to around twenty international film festivals, including the Vancouver International Film Festival, where it received the Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema.

    In 1999, Lee’s second film, Peppermint Candy, also received numerous domestic awards, including the Grand Bell Awards for Best Film and Best Director; the Blue Dragon Film Award for Best Screenplay; and the Korean Association of Film Critics Awards for Best Film and Best Director. The film was invited to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where it received the Special Prize of the Jury, and to the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. For his third film, Oasis, released in 2002, Lee received, among others, the FIPRESCI Prize from the International Federation of Film Critics Award; the Cinema Verine Prize; and the Ecumenical Prize.

    In 2003, Lee Chang-dong was appointed as Minister of Culture and Tourism of Korea for the newly elected president Roh Moo-hyun’s administration. After resigning his post, Lee returned to filmmaking and founded Pine House, which produced his fourth film, Secret Sunshine, starring Jeon Do-yeon, which earned her the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actress in 2007. In 2010, Poetry, the fifth film written and directed by Lee, won the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Screenplay. In 2011, he was selected to chair the Cannes Film Festival International Critics’ Week selection committee for feature films. Later, from 2011 to 2016, Lee Chang-dong served as professor at the Korea National University of Arts School of Film, TV & Multimedia.

    Lee Chang-dong is the recipient of the Order of Cultural Merit (2002) awarded by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Korea, and of the Légion d'Honneur (2006), an order of merit awarded by the French government.

     

    Since his debut novella, “Trophy,” Lee Chang-dong has established himself as an iconic 1980s author. Told from a fresh second-generation perspective, his realistic stories about post-war and post-division Korea skillfully weave history into the real lives and minds of the people of the time. Lee’s stories, with their deeply insightful dialogues, often feature highly self-conscious, poverty-stricken second-generation characters, whose painful realities are ironically turned upside down. Naturally, the inner world of the displaced people, psychologically uprooted as the industrialization era forces them to live in urban settings, is a major theme of Lee’s stories. The suffering of individuals and the worldly and selfish behaviors of groups are observed through the eyes of characters with moderate views. These characters reflect the author’s focus on the fundamental – rather than superficial – conflicts arising from human nature, with the underlying assumption that all of us are complicit in the situation. However, it should also be noted that the author’s attempts to gain a deeper human understanding of his characters is rooted in affection. In what constitutes a positive effort to ultimately reach ‘reconciliation’ and ‘resolution of resentment’, Lee maintains a balanced view in exposing false existences. In his second collection, Nokcheon Has Fields of Shit, Lee’s stories portray more advanced characters who face ideology or reality head on, with balanced views transcending ideological biases. The truths of life are never simple. Characters who delve into the complex nature of things while constantly exploring and searching for true values awaken us to such virtues as humanitarianism and altruism. They probe away at the fundamental question of what it means to live a beautiful and fulfilling life. 

    About the translators

    Soyoung Kim studied physics and astronomy at university and graduate school before pursuing her interests in language and literature, earning her master’s degree in translation. She has translated Survival of the Sickest by Dr. Sharon Moalem into Korean (2010, Gimmyoung Publishers) and several Korean books into English, including Park Mingyu’s bestselling novel The Last Fan Club of the Sammi Superstars and Kim Junghyuk’s short story collection The Library of Musical Instruments (2016, Dalkey Archive Press).

     

    Media Response/Awards Received

    The Lee Sang Literary Award (Runner-up Prize) for the short story “On Destiny” (1991)

    The Hankook Ilbo Literary Award for the novella “Nokcheon Has Fields of Shit” (1992) 

     

Translated Books (3)

News from Abroad (3)