Real Shock, Real Reading Pleasure: Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan

  • onDecember 10, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byAlexei Grishanov
Кит (Whale)
Tr. Kim Hwan

Set in the turbulent 1950s, life for the protagonists of Whale—Geumbok and her daughter, Chunhee—is tough, as it is for most of their compatriots. Fishmongers, longshoremen, mobsters, brick factory workers, prostitutes, thugs—these hard-boiled characters who populate the book, eking out a miserable existence amid the daily, exhausting grind of poverty, fill the reader with mixed emotions. Every now and then one is tempted to skip some pages, unable to bear the horrors described. There are shocking descriptions of rape, murder, the squalor of the world, and the cruelty of prison life that the novel’s heroines have to experience at some point, but alongside this hideousness is true love—even if it is the love of a mobster for a courtesan—and honor, and self-sacrifice, and even a fairy tale about a little mute girl’s friendship with an elephant. Basically, everything is as it is in real life.

Reading the novel, one constantly gets a feeling of watching an amazing movie: according to the author-director’s will, brief, vivid stories take turns, the protagonists’ fates intertwine, and just as one assumes that the plot about a crone who spends her entire life saving money to take revenge on the whole world is cut short early in the novel, it surprisingly reemerges, first, in the miraculous salvation of Geumbok, who is left without any means of living, and then in the cause of her death. The mystique of foresight allowing the heroine to previse a typhoon that ruins a fishery, the mystique of the birth of a child who is the spitting image of a long-dead beloved, a ghost of the vengeful crone obstructing escape routes during a terrible fire—doesn’t it all make for a solid thriller? There is a reason that the heroine loves cinema so much: for her, it’s not only a retreat where dreams may take the lead, but also something close to real life, only much purer and worthier than her own. The illusionary world and the real one weave together into a tangle of Geumbok’s self-sacrifice, passions, and vices.

The whale that amazed Geumbok in her youth and gives the novel its title is the embodiment of a dependable friend, a protector that Geumbok needs so desperately and looks for vainly all her life. Unconsciously, she is enticed by all things huge, towering above the mundane, be it her first love, a freakishly large longshoreman with the eyes of an unreasoning child, Jumbo the Elephant, the biggest movie theater in the country that she finally succeeds in building, and, of course, her daughter Chunhee, who manages to forever retain the pure soul of a baby within a large, ugly body. The ugly and the beautiful are always close to each other—and that may well be the novel’s main point. Chunhee, her business-like mother’s opposite, lives in her own magnificent imaginary world where yarrow flowers bloom and elephants talk. It is as though the cruel treatment she endures since childhood is like water off a duck’s back; she honestly doesn’t understand why people are sometimes cruel, why they beat and humiliate her as if that is how it’s supposed to be. She does her best to survive, senselessly baking bricks at the abandoned factory in the hopes that one day people will come back, and with them, her childhood. Unfortunately, she, too, finds love . . . Why “unfortunately”? This is, perhaps, the saddest story in the novel. Love is happiness, and since it happens in the dreadful world Chunhee lives in, one expects a happy ending. But, alas, as much as the novel resembles a movie, this is not Hollywood . . .

Having finished the book, I found myself thinking that everything was wrong here, everything was awry, that there was too much injustice I wanted to immediately make amends for. No, certainly not to rewrite the novel. It would be good to amend life itself.

I guess this is what the author had in mind, and I agree.


by Alexei Grishanov
Publisher, Khudozhestvennaya literature

Author's Profile

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.