Lessons Hard Learned: Na Krayu Zhizni by Cheon Myeong-kwan
- onNovember 15, 2014
- Vol.24 Summer 2014
- byIrina Madiy
- Na Krayu Zhizni
Tr. Seung Jooyeon 2013287pp.
The novel Na Krayu Zhizni (Aging Family), written by the well-known writer Cheon Myeong-kwan, introduces us to the life of a small Korean family. A mother, sons, a daughter, and a granddaughter are living with difficulties, haunted by a series of misfortunes, losses, and trouble.
In-mo, the younger son in the family, narrates the story. He is a 48-year-old intellectual who likes to ruminate on his life and ruins himself by drinking. He once showed great promise in cinema, which made his family proud. Unfortunately, those expectations were not met and the very first movie he directed failed ignominiously; his wife left him and he went bankrupt.
Unable to deal with failure, the frustrated filmmaker gradually goes to pieces drowning his sorrows in drink. In-mo no longer has any moral right to look down on his older brother Han-mo, who is constantly in and out of jail, nor his superficial sister Mi-yeon, the owner of a café with a dubious reputation.
Brothers and sister never tried to understand each other when they were kids, and nothing has changed now as they gather in their mother’s small apartment—unhappy, frustrated, and defeated by life. Mother “could only meet her children when they creep up to her to lick their wounds, and feed them well.”
It is interesting that the reader will never learn the name of the grown children’s mother. She is just Mom. And what mother does not dream of returning to the time when she was needed by her children? When she would reconcile them with each other; when she looked for solutions to their problems; and when she tried to teach them how to love one another.
In Na Krayu Zhizni, the mother tries to make that dream come true. She suddenly becomes energetic and youthful, cooking and feeding her shiftless adult children without rest. She tries to solve their problems, smooth things over, and help as she did before. Nevertheless, everything falls apart. Peace never visits their house. The brothers fiercely hate each other and their sister despises them both. Mi-yeon is more concerned about her personal life than about the education of her daughter Min-gyeong. It seems that their mother’s desire to see the peaceful faces of her offspring sitting down for a meal together is not feasible.
However, changes finally occur when Min-gyeong runs away as tension in the house reaches its limit. The family is reunited by their problems and worries. With reluctance and no small effort, they begin to look for ways to interact and live according to once forgotten rules. Through hatred, pain, and fear, they gradually find the way to light and love. Even maximalist Min-gyeong, after going through hard times, comes to the same simple and clear conclusion that her family, even the worthless uncles she disrespects, will protect her in difficult times and that this is the most important thing for anyone.
“Probably, Mom has seen life as an incredibly scary monster, she could not understand the reason behind the failures that have befallen her children,” reflects In-mo. Within a few months, he changes, as does everyone else. However, their mom is no longer there. Mother, being “on the edge of life,” in the literal sense of the word, managed to keep her children, who stepped on the brink, from taking a final, fatal step.
by Irina Madiy
Cheon Myeong-kwan is a novelist and scriptwriter. He has received the Munhakdongne Novel Award and the Kusang Young Writer Award. His books have been translated into English, French, Chinese, Russian, and Vietnamese. English editions of his work include Modern Family and “Homecoming.” Modern Family was adapted into the movie Boomerang Family.