Dogs & Cats: The New Companions of Korean Literature
- onDecember 1, 2019
- Vol.46 Winter 2019
- byCha Mi-ryeong
Korean literature is being overrun with cats and dogs. One glance at several recent titles is enough to make the case: “How Cats are Trained ” (Kim Keum Hee, 2015), “Cats, Breaking and Entering” (Sohn Bomi, 2016), “Their First and Third Cats” (Yun I-Hyeong, 2018), and The Dog I Love (Bak Solmay, 2019) among others. In fact, animal-related episodes can be easily found in contemporary Korean poems, essays, webtoons, YouTube videos, podcasts, and television shows. Our impact on animals and our ways of coexisting with them have become issues of social concern, and it appears that in the future, we’ll likely see more activities centering on animal rights, such as the 2019 Sseudongshi (Trash–Animals–Poetry) project.
Of course, animals have always had a presence in literature and the arts. For instance, dogs and cats have been featured in numerous classical Korean works of art. In fact, tracing the significance of the animals memorialized in Korean literature and art is itself a meaningful humanities project. And yet, the fact that dogs and cats are so prevalent today seems to be one of the important changes that Korean society is going through.
Contemporary literary works question whether humans are the most superior species and whether they can truly serve as a measure for interdependent relationships. In Hwang Jungeun’s “Life of Myo, or a Cat Life,” the feline protagonist, named Body, declares, “[I]s it not true that determining whose subsistence ranks uppermost among all the beasts of subsistence is hardly a black‒and‒white matter?” For the non-humans of this world—the animals—what does it mean to navigate this world? How does the world stamp itself onto their bodies? Reading “Life of Myo, or a Cat Life” operates under the assumption that the reader must go through the world as a stray cat. Within this transposition, the reader is instantly laid vulnerable to the relentless violence the world inflicts upon the cat. In the story, the cat’s name is simply Body, with no other qualifiers, and Body’s body is not part of nature. Just like humans, animals too find themselves transported by different forces to the boundaries of nature, culture, and technology.
In the second half of the story, Body’s stomach is sliced open, then immediately sewn shut in a stray animal spaying scam. The cat is then altogether abandoned. “[D]’you know how much it costs to actually slice them open and cut out the ovary and testicles and shit? How much time and effort too?” The entire scene sheds gruesome light on a form of non- anthropocentric exploitation. “I couldn’t even close my eyelids because of how they’d paralyzed me. / I had to suffer through the entire ordeal with dry eyes. / After which I was stuffed in a sack, thrown back into the car, and dumped in an unfamiliar alley.” The force of this soliloquy is strong, because the reader is made to experience the horrific ordeal as the animal itself.
Furthermore, by seeing the world through the eyes of a cat and not a human, “Life of Myo, or a Cat Life” captures certain moments where humans are laid bare. The world of humans as seen by cats is ruthless to the point of completely destroying whoever is not on one’s side. In the story, Body cohabits with Old Man Gok and observes and records his behavior. The other humans in the novel view Old Man Gok as belonging to “a species different from themselves,” but the cat sees him as something else. What Body sees is the old man’s extraordinary dignity in collecting and processing food, and his pride in creating fire out of discarded waste. And yet, the old man is pushed further and further aside by the world until he ultimately goes missing, after which Body finds itself in a place where “only trash and dying cats lie.” Body is here reunited with Old Man Gok, both creatures who have been abused, then cast off. Which is why Body asks, “Even if I had the chance to live my life over again, what would I do?”
In works by Bak Solmay, a contemporary of Hwang Jungeun’s, human characters often find themselves together with cats, dogs, and even lions. As evidenced by the metaphor of the tent in “What Must I Call For ? ,” the production of a documentary in “The Eyes of Winter,” and Busan Tower in “Swaying into the Darkness,” Bak’s stories typically deal with the issue of irreproducibility. In her novels, the irreproducibility for Busan has to do with the risks of radiation exposure, unlike Gwangju where irreproducibility has to do with the May 18 Democratic Uprising. The threat of a nuclear explosion on the Korean Peninsula, all of East Asia, and the entire world is a completely man-made outcome that makes us wonder whether humanity will be sustainable. This post-anthropocentric circling back by Bak is worth an observation from this context. Obviously, humans aren’t the only inhabitants on planet Earth, and the chaos that ensues as the global balance collapses is felt not just by humans, despite the fact they were the only ones responsible for bringing about this downfall.
The city of Busan as it appears in Bak’s story is both the site of the apocalypse and a place where humans have coexisted with animals. In “The Eyes of Winter” (2013) and “Swaying into the Darkness” (2014), which are set after an accident at the Kori Nuclear Power Plant,１ the human characters’ blood relatives, including their parents and siblings, are rarely mentioned. Rather, the characters are emotionally closest to their pet dogs and cats. For example, in “The Eyes of Winter,” the director of a documentary on the Kori plant who was born and raised in Busan’s Haeundae Beach is living with his dog Moja at the time of the accident, after which he evacuates with his dog to a friend’s house. In “Swaying into the Darkness,” it is not humans who reconstruct Busan Tower, which has surfaced as the multifaceted symbol of humankind’s dreams and failures as well as of the apocalypse and global regeneration. It is not humans, but rather animals and objects that head towards the dark of night, “swaying” with the others. Bak Solmay’s stories have as their starting point a daily communion with the companion species, then go on to experiment with a fantastical style that blurs the boundaries between humans and animals.
And what about poetry? An interesting new book was published this year. This extraordinary work, titled Grateful to Have a Dog: On Time Spent with Dogs, is dedicated to twenty-five dogs. Edited by Yu Gyeyoung, this collection is a collaboration of different poems and essays written by twenty poets, including Kim Sang-hyuk, Park Siha, Shim Bo-Seon, and Yu Hyeong-jin.
As the foreword suggests, the contributors to Grateful to Have a Dog believe it is “now time for humans to ask ourselves what we can do,” and the collection is full of imaginative versions of humans and animals coexisting and coevolving. In Song Seungeon’s poem “The Dog Doesn’t Know / The Unknowing Dog Knows,” the special love between a dog and his companion that both protects them and brings meaning to their existence is brought to life to a rhythmic juxtaposition of the words “doesn’t know” and “knows.” Dogs are not only equal companions to their humans, but in some cases can take the lead—a fact that is explored by other poems in the collection. In Yu Gyeyoung’s “That Dog,” the poetically minded narrator comes across several dogs that encourage him to reflect upon his relationships. According to news reports, the same contributors to this book of poetry are now working on a cat collaboration. It appears the literary interest in our pets and animal companions will continue to grow ever deeper.
This is an abridged and altered version of Mi-ryeong Cha, “Goyangi, saibogeu geurigo nunmul—2010 nyeondae yeoseong soseolgwa poseuteu-hyumeon ‘mom’ui jinghudeul” [Cats, cyborgs, and tears—women’s fiction of the 2010s and symptoms of the post-human “body”], Munhakdongne the Quarterly 100 (2019 Fall): 534–557.
１ Both of these stories deal with the aftermath of a fictional accident at the Kori Nuclear Power Plant unrelated to actual incidents at the plant.—Ed.