Sea at Heart: I Like it Here by Han Changhoon
- onMarch 22, 2018
- Vol.39 Spring 2018
- byDmitry Rumyantsev
- Мне здесь нравится (I Like it Here)
Tr. Lidiya Azarina 2017240pp.
Six out of the eight stories in Han Changhoon’s collection I Like it Here are dedicated to inhabitants of small islands tucked away far off the Korean Peninsula. Born on an island and living there again after years of wanderings, Han knows firsthand the joys and hardships of island life.
Wishing to capture the unique character of island existence, Han is a true master of realistic narrative. But the simple lives of his heroes, their compactness, which is not just geographical but metaphysical as well, make the stories look, in some respects, like parables (they bring to mind Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, for example). Or even like fairy tales. As in many fairy tales, common people find themselves confronted and challenged by almost magical forces beyond their control, which in Han’s book are economic processes and forces of nature.
The writer manages to present the fishermen’s lives as particular to islanders and also universally human, yet he doesn’t forget the personal dimension either; the actual turns of fate and mind are all individual.
Han’s heroes are ordinary people with fears and flaws. But they face choices and have to decide whether they can take responsibility for themselves and their beloved ones. As in reality, sometimes the choice is to be made at once and sometimes you have all your life to ponder it. Thus, the old fisherman in “The Words on the Wind” does not call on his friend’s widow for forty years after witnessing his death and bringing the news to the island. And, perhaps having never forgiven himself for his cowardice, he is still forgiven by the friend, forever young, and the widow, long grown old.
Sweating, struggling, and suffering, people are daily beset with existential conundrums. Society has almost no place in this world, as it often just moves humans away from the big questions, obscuring pain, making one forget about death and responsibility.
Karaoke, the personal computer, an airplane carrying elderly passengers from Samdo Island to Jeju Island—all these suddenly jump out as something novel and strange, even a bit alarming. Then you realize that your perspective has changed. Now you see everything through the islanders’ lenses, heedful of the direction of the wind, the ebb and flow, and other things of vital importance, and you no longer think that only city events really matter. It strikes you how fragile the island world is, and how threatened it is by globalization and urbanization.
The islanders exist in and of themselves and also in contrast to the mainland dwellers; and sometimes even to their own children. Of course, the older ones, especially the fathers, are hardly models of moral behavior, swayed by passions and sometimes rude to their family. It is not that they are better than their children, but that they are just unique and have their own special way of living. They are loyal to their past. The book’s title, I Like it Here, has quite a bit of irony to it, but also, as Han puts it, “some manifestation of elementary willpower.” The older folk know how to defy circumstances. Thus, the woman in “Snowy Night” (though not an islander in this story) keeps an old promise between her and her lover not to meet each other. But this is exactly where she finds joy: “The reason our love is a success is quite simply because we played by the rules.”
The biggest fear of the fathers in their islands or half-deserted villages is to not be able to fulfill their destinies. And their key destiny, according to an old man in “The Lightest Life,” is to provide the children with a lesson in “dying and disappearing.” Life is but a long preparation for death, so a lesson in dying is the same as a lesson in living properly.
It should be noted that dark tones do not dominate the book. The questions of life and death, of destiny and responsibility, which are of primary interest to the author, are also treated ironically. For example, “Let Go All Lines” and “The Seniors of Samdo and Their Trip to Jeju Island” are almost comic tales, and this is by no means a dismissive characterization.
An important positive theme is pronounced in the book’s closing story, “Father and Son.” Yong (whose fisherman uncle lost his yacht, wife, and purpose in the first story) initially seems to be a good-for-nothing, opting to spend his life on the island together with his parents and uncle. But in helping his elderly father, he proves to be a deft and competent fisherman. Thus, different generations have a chance for understanding and rapport, and remote spots may have a future with the world retaining all its diversity.
Besides, Han has learned a secret from poet Ahn Sang-hak as revealed to readers in a 2016 interview. We are all islanders in a way, but our island is a drop of water, for “the planet we live on is a drop of water floating across the Universe.”
by Dmitry Rumyantsev
Editor, AST Publishers