- Evening Proposal
Tr. Park Youngsuk and Gloria Cosgrove Smith 2016230pp.
Dalkey Archive Press introduced me to Korean literature a few years ago. It was through their excellent Library of Korean Literature series that I discovered the novels of Lee Kiho, Jang Eun-jin, and the short stories of Jung Young Moon. Other European and American publishing houses have since followed suit and now, with Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian winning this year’s Man Booker International Prize, it would seem that Korean literature is finally enjoying the worldwide attention it so richly deserves.
The short story collection Evening Proposal is my first encounter with the stories of Pyun Hye Young. It is also the first time in years that I have read an entire collection back-to-back. I say read but devoured would probably be a more accurate description: I simply couldn’t put the book down. Readers be warned—you might do better to avoid such gluttony and confine yourselves to one or maybe two a day from this collection; these are the type of stories that need time to settle in your mind. They are certainly not for the faint-hearted.
The first story opens with that well-loved symbol of innocence, the rabbit. Abandoned in a park, the rabbit is rescued by a man who, like many of the other characters in these stories, is unnamed. He is simply “the man.” Temporarily living in a strange and unidentified city, he plods along in a job that is not only tedious but also utterly pointless and, when eventually he stops going to work, his absence isn’t even noticed. Gradually diminished by loneliness and paranoia, at one stage, he finds himself living much as the rabbit lives, mindlessly munching on tasteless food, crouched in the corner of an apartment that has in effect become his cage. This is an intriguing story full of twists and turns and a very fitting opening indeed for what is about to come.
The work-for-work’s sake theme continues in “Would You Like to Take a Tour Bus?” In this story, two men, known only by their initials, follow a series of instructions that takes them through various stages in a long journey. Their task is to deliver a large plastic sack that is stuffed with an unknown and increasingly odorous substance. As the story progresses the sack begins to take on a sinister presence and becomes almost like a character rather than a prop in the story. The ending has a twist worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, as the two men are driven off in a tour bus, like lambs to the slaughter.