- Familiar Things
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell 2017216pp.
More than forty years ago, Hwang Sok-yong traced the bewilderment of millions who toiled for the economic miracle in his classic short story, “The Road to Sampo,” about a drifter returning to his fishing village to find his island scarred by construction sites. In Familiar Things, published in Korean in 2011 and now out in Sora Kim-Russell’s assured English translation, the author returns to an era of breakneck industrialization to probe the human and environmental costs of the “Miracle on the Han River” and its analogues around the world.
The novel begins with the enchant-ment and anticipation of a children’s adventure. A boy standing on an open truck speeds along a riverside expressway, boldly facing the future. The silver grass and sunset evoke a “foreign, faraway land.” Yet the boy and his mother are riding a garbage truck bound for the western outskirts of a megacity. As the convoy climbs a dirt road beyond the “cozy lights” of a village, the child is ripped from his fairytale.
At the crest of the hill, “they could barely breathe from the stench. The smell was unbearably foul, a vile combination of every bad odour in the world—manure, sewage, spoiled food, hard-boiled soy sauce, fermented soybean paste. Clinging to their faces . . . were swarms of flies.” This fetid heap is to be the thirteen-year-old’s workplace and home.
The novel’s 1980s setting on “Flower Island” alludes to Seoul’s Nanjido, once a beauty spot in the Han River famous for orchids and peanuts. Nanjido became the capital’s landfill from 1978-92, when its garbage mountain rose hundreds of meters. In this child’s-eye view of the rapacious logic of mass production and consumption, “the people who lived there were likewise discards and outcasts driven from the city.”