Disasters-God Playing Dice, or Humans Toppling Dominoes?

  • onMarch 25, 2021
  • Vol.51 Spring 2021
  • byLee Ji-eun
Copyright ⓒ Sanho


Sonia Shah’s Pandemic begins at a wet market in China. The author walks down the market lanes and finds all sorts of animals that otherwise would never have crossed paths in the wild, breathing, eating, and defecating side by side. The market provides a strain of virus found in horseshoe bats with an environment conducive to spreading to other species such as raccoons, snakes, and civets. The more the virus replicates, the greater its chances of evolving and mutating, and it ultimately evolves into a form that infects humans.

This might read like a description of tracking the origins of the recent COVID-19 virus outbreak that has thrown the world into a crisis, but it’s actually a report on the origins of the SARS virus. The sense of déjà vu one feels from Shah’s investigative account is proof that the crises humans face today are recurring calamities created by human activity. We believe disasters are something that disrupts our daily lives without warning, but if we look at them from a broader perspective, we soon understand that most of these disasters aren’t sudden, unexpected events but rather the result of our accumulated actions.

Such a view is based on the premise that everything—animals, humans, nature—is interconnected and that our actions trigger a chain of events through unseen links. These series of effects are not limited to contagious diseases. Disasters like the collapse of a department store [the Sampoong Department Store in 1991], a gas explosion [the  Daegu gas line in 1995], or the sinking of a ferry [MV Sewol tragedy in 2014] took place “suddenly” because of the accumulated results of people neglecting their respective duties over a “long time.”

Any part of our everyday lives can be one of the countless links leading up to a catastrophe. For instance, the beef we eat for dinner could have been acquired at the cost of rising sea water levels in the near future, and the affordable jeans we wear could have been obtained by exploiting labor and wasting immeasurable amounts of seawater. Any act we commit, no matter how individual, will affect other living beings on earth. Whether we like it or not, we are a part of the global community.

Then how does Korean literature depict disaster? It may have been warning readers all along that calamity is the cumulative result of human actions or that it is something that materializes from the crisscross of connections among all living things on this planet, across all genders and species. One may gain a clearer view after reading the three stories introduced below. Disaster isn’t something like a pair of dice that God has thrown before us but more like a falling row of dominoes, each of them representing human acts that have piled up over time, one after the other.


Like Dominoes Falling Toward Disaster

Yun Ko-eun starts off her novel The Disaster Tourist with the news of a trash heap traveling all over the world on ocean currents. Yona, the protagonist, is a programming coordinator of a travel agency specializing in “disaster tours,” and her main task is to develop package tours to calamity-stricken areas. She desperately hopes to turn her company’s business around with a new travel package, which turns out to be highly problematic as it involves a human-made catastrophe. The novel focuses more on the mechanism that generates disaster, rather than on the inner conflict Yona struggles with. Any planned disaster requires numerous people to act strictly as they’re told. Why do these people follow such orders? Have they given up their consciences? It turns out they haven’t. All the people who take part in the series of events do so anonymously, but their roles are closely connected to one another. And yet nobody knows what role they play in the unfolding events or the outcome of their actions because their tasks are divided into the smallest possible components. Each person is simply in charge of the role they’ve been given and as a result, nobody feels responsible for the outcome. They remain oblivious to the causes of the resulting calamity up to the end. In this sense, the novel teaches us to develop a broader view by presenting a realistic account of circumstances that end in disaster.


Contactless Contact in the Pandemic Era

“Here, We Are Face to Face” is a short story by Choi Eunmi set in the midst of a pandemic that is very similar to the current one. The repeated requests from the disease control authorities to avoid contact with other people and the “Stay-at-Home” campaigns hosted by civic groups lead one to believe that the pandemic has completely severed people’s relationships. However, the infection routes, traced and made public by the authorities, ironically prove how closely connected we are. Rather than severing relationships, the pandemic changes the way we connect with others. In other words, it pushes us towards “contactless” connections. Choi illustrates the strange and unsettling scenes we encounter in this so-called “untact” age, where one’s privacy is made public as “activity routes”; where an individual becomes the target of public hatred after his or her private affairs are leaked; where schoolchildren receive their lessons through real-time video conferencing; and where working moms remotely take care of or monitor their children at home with surveillance cameras. By doing so, Choi shows how anxiety and distrust can spread throughout the public amidst these changes. She also sheds light on another important issue—the burden of working mothers who must nonetheless continue to take care of their children even as these unprecedented changes take place.


Before Disaster Forms a Link Between Humans and Animals

“Aoi Garden” by Pyun Hye-young is a grotesque story of a family living in a world that has gone awry after the spread of a virulent disease. The streets are brimming with garbage and the clouds above have turned black. The world is overflowing with filth and germ-infested junk. If there is even a tiny space free from such litter, it is filled with a horrible stench. The story progresses with the accumulation of disturbing images rather than following a sequenced plot. What’s worth noticing is the overlapping images of humans and animals and of men and women. For example, the image of the cat that has its uterus removed to prevent it from spreading the infectious disease and the image of the sister who is pregnant with something unknown correspond to each other, and the image of the pregnant sister is juxtaposed with the image of the protagonist who hides the cat in his belly. Also, the image of the frog with a large body and skinny legs that the sister gives birth to summons back the image of the frogs swarming over a pile of garbage as well as the image of the disabled protagonist. These overlapping images blur the traditional divide between genders and species in a negative way. If disasters seek to form a link between humans and animals with illnesses and disabilities, shouldn’t we consider new ways to connect with animals and remove ourselves from this row of dominoes that is heading towards destruction?

Translated by Juyeon Lee