Stories from the Hinterlands: Wolves by Jeon Sungtae

Remarkable of Jeon Sungtae’s short story collection Wolves is that his stories do not revolve around Seoul; rather, they take the reader to places far from its sphere of influence. These places include the Tumen River, the border of China and North Korea, mountain villages in Jeolla Province, the rugged farming community of Desaengi Village on Cheongsan Island, and, most notably, Mongolia, where six of the stories take place. It is in these locales that Jeon weaves his sad, lonely tales inhabited by characters who are trying to escape their circumstances or rediscover themselves. With an attentive translation from Sora Kim-Russell, Jeon’s stories are tangible and his characters multi-dimensional, making Wolves an enjoyable and illuminating read.

 

Mongolia’s centrality in the collection allows Jeon to explore some key issues that are integral to Korean culture and history. For many of the characters North-South relations crop up, and a North Korean restaurant, The Magnolia, in the capital of Ulaanbaatar serves as a meeting place for characters in more than one story.

 

Unlike the DPRK, with which Mongolia shared a relationship during the Cold War, Mongolia has gone through the shock of shifting from a socialist to a market-driven economy. For many of the characters in these tales, the opening up of the country serves as a tantalizing yet potentially unprofitable prospect for adventurous South Koreans: “Though Mongolia had become the new travel destination for Koreans in recent years, few people were interested in investing. The biggest obstacle was the six-month off-season in winter.”

 

The issue of work is vital to Jeon’s stories. For example, in the opening story, “The Magnolia,” the main character runs a tour company that takes groups of businessmen on team-building corporate retreats into the Mongolian steppes. Jeon juxtaposes the formerly Communist state with the rapid growth of neoliberalism with dry, sardonic wit. He is an attentive observer of the pitfalls of tourism and adventure in a place like Mongolia, and this is most clearly highlighted in several stories where the two become intertwined.

 

Many Mongolians, for example, make for South Korea to study and work, often ...