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FICTION

Keen and Bold Vision: There a Petal Silently Falls by Ch’oe Yun

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Vol.7 Spring 2010
  • byJennifer Crewe
There a Petal Silently Falls: Three Stories
Tr. Bruce Fulton
2008
200pp.

Columbia University Press has a long history of publishing literary works from Asia in translation. For many years the modern novels on our list were translations from Chinese and Japanese fiction.

Recently, with the help of KLTI, we have begun to add Korean books to our list. One of the first works of Korean fiction we published was There a Petal Silently Falls: Three Stories by Ch’oe Yun, translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton. In addition to the title story, the book includes “Whisper Yet,” and “The Thirteen- Cent Flower.” It is a very strong collection, and has received excellent reviews in the American press. “Everything about Ch’oe Yun’s work is brilliant,” is the last line of the Publishers Weekly review.

I was drawn to this book, particularly the title story, because of the subtle and poignant manner in which Ch’oe depicts the trauma her heroine has experienced. Even an English-language reader with no knowledge of the Gwangju massacre of May 1980 understands clearly that the author is doing something daring and new here. She interweaves three distinct points of view in her narrative. The first presents the first-person inner thoughts of the teenage heroine who has seen her mother gunned down before her eyes, and whose brother has already been killed. As a result of these horrific events, the girl has become deranged.

The second is the third-person narrative of a construction worker who rapes the girl after she begins to follow him, and who beats her, but who ultimately gives her shelter and food and begins to grow concerned about her. The third point of view is that of a group of former classmates of the girl’s dead brother. They try to find the girl who, starving and insane, has been wandering the countryside and small villages in search of her brother’s grave and some kind of meaning to the catastrophic turn her life has taken.

No specific details of the historical events that precipitated the girl’s predicament are provided by Ch’oe, but the reader comes away from the story with a strong sense of the author’s critique of political repression and state violence, as well as sanctioned violence against women. Her very indirect approach coupled with highly literary, haunting prose seems to make her message stronger than if she had been more specific and factual.

The stories in this book are stunning, and they will be read by Americans and other readers of English who are interested in contemporary fiction, particularly Korean fiction, but they are also very helpful to anyone who wishes to gain an understanding of postcolonial South Korea, Cold War history in an Asian country, or modern Korean politics and human rights, and it is my hope that professors of modern Korean history will urge their students to read them.

I cannot close without commenting on the translation by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton. The literary quality of the prose in English is excellent and seamless. The Daesan Foundation in Seoul obviously agrees, as it has awarded the Fultons its translation prize for this book. 

 

* Jennifer Crewe is editorial director of Columbia University Press.