Coming of Age in the Last Slums of Seoul: The Muslim Butcher by Son Hong-kyu
- onMarch 28, 2017
- Vol.35 Spring 2017
- byColin Marshall
- The Muslim Butcher
Tr. Yu Young-nan 2016181pp.
Twentieth-century South Korea has promoted itself as a highly developed, affluent, and coherent society, but not quite everywhere in the country, and not even everywhere in its showcase capital, yet conforms to the official image. Son Hong-kyu sets The Muslim Butcher in the Seoul that the official branders would prefer visitors didn’t see: the grimy hillside slums crowded with illegal dwellings and their occupants too poor, disturbed, disgraced, or foreign to dare emerge from the margins.
But Seoul’s redevelopmental churn has obliterated most of these areas that existed in the 1970s or 80s in which Son sets his novel, a time with the cop show Chief Investigator still at the height of its popularity and enough Korean War veterans still alive to regularly gather in reunions by the hundreds. If its particular neighborhood ever did exist, it hasn’t for a long time; the book ends with its young protagonist awaiting the bulldozers that will clear away the only home apart from orphanages and churches he’s ever known.
From the perspective of adulthood, the narrator recounts his early adolescence in this milieu of societal outcasts without futures as he struggles with his own lack of a past. Having lost all memory of an apparently harrowing early childhood that left him without parents and a body inexplicably covered in scars, he rebels against the structure of each institution in which the system places him until the day the Muslim butcher of the title, an aged Turk named Hassan, shows up to take him in.
“Uncle Hassan,” as he becomes, runs one of Seoul’s countless pink-lit butcher shops. There he spends all day carving up pork, a surprising occupation for a Muslim but one whose low status suits his own as an outsider. “Of the customers, the local Koreans pretended they didn’t know Uncle Hassan if they ran into him outside the shop,” the narrator remembers. “The threshold of the butcher shop wasn’t merely a threshold but a border that divided this world from that.”
The other denizens of “this world” include Aunt Anna, the proprietor of the blood-sausage soup restaurant at the center of the tumbledown community, a middle-aged woman apparently without a family, and Uncle Amos, the Greek who lives upstairs, penniless and a compulsive liar to boot. Not long after settling into Hassan’s apartment (the only home in Korea he’d ever seen, he notes, without the president’s portrait on display), he soon finds friends his own age.
The slum’s children, though, seem even more damaged than its eccentric adults. Kim Yujong, the stuttering son of a coal-seller unattractive to the point of deformity, claims both literary ambitions (modeling himself, it seems, after the occupation-era novelist of the same name) and, with eerie confidence, an ability to understand the language of animals, converting it, the narrator says, “into the language handed down by our parents” but “mixed with various inflections and unknown vocabulary.”
The presence of Yujong, a youngster preternaturally “mesmerized by the inaccuracy of language,” establishes this as a novel deeply concerned not just with issues like prejudice and discrimination in an ostensibly economically classless and ethnically homogenous country, but with communication itself. Though profane, the language of the slum convinces the narrator that “the world is made in such a way that simple language wins: money, love, honor, friendship, happiness . . . Even swear words were trapped by the vernacular, gradually losing their sharp edges and vulgarity before being integrated into it.”
Under these basic exigencies, its people cohere into a makeshift family, with all the passing resentments and unlikely allegiances that implies: the narrator describes an elaborately delusional veteran and an unhealthy child, briefly inseparable, as “noun-like characters, so when they walked side by side, they became something of a compound noun.” Toward the story’s end, Son gathers nearly all the characters into a truck for a hog-slaughtering picnic out in Aunt Anna’s hometown. On the way, “Yujong reminded us of the meaning of picnic, sopung, so meaning strolling and pung meaning wind, walking in the wind.”
Yujong’s lesson brings back to mind the first thing Hassan teaches the narrator about the meaning of Islam: “submission, sunjong in Korean.” Hassan, not without dignity, submits to fate that first brought him so far from his homeland as a soldier in the Korean War, relegates him to a livelihood at odds with his religion, and ultimately consumes that livelihood itself. But despite the “adoptive father’s blood” flowing in his veins, the equally tempest-tossed narrator, Son hints, won’t live his life so passively.
by Colin Marshall
Essayist and broadcaster