A Voice That Never Lets Go: Savage Alice by Hwang Jungeun

  • onJune 20, 2018
  • Vol.40 Summer 2018
  • byMasatsugu Ono
野蛮なアリスさん (Savage Alice)
Tr. Saito Mariko

Hwang Jungeun’s Savage Alice is an uncanny, haunting, and terrifyingly beautiful novel that tells the story of Alicia, a homeless crossdresser, who lives in the center of a large city—presumably Seoul. Even though he is “dressed perfectly” in a navy blue, close-fitting jacket and miniskirt, he smells so badly that the people near him feel offended and anxious. Every night, Alicia comes back to his home village situated in the southwestern suburb of Komori. What does he do there? Nothing. Nothing that is, except remember. Looking up at an immense and luminous forest of high-rise apartment buildings, he dreams. More precisely, he immerses himself in memories from his childhood, a time when he lived with his family in the same village, an expanse of empty lots and rice fields dotted with houses.

One of his most precious memories is that of his younger brother, who was considered an “idiot” by his neighbors as well as by his classmates. As happens with two brothers who are close, the younger brother often bothered him with endless questions. The brothers remind us of two puppies playfully nuzzling each other. In fact, the presence of dogs in this novel is striking. Alicia’s family always keeps their dogs locked up in a cage, in hideous conditions. The dogs have not been given names and their black paws are soiled with excrement. Seeing these miserable animals, Alicia feels deeply ashamed. Even though they are covered in fur, they remind him of “naked humans.”

It seems significant that when Alicia thinks about Komori, the first image that comes to mind, even before his own home, is that of the filthy dog cage. Near the end of the novel, there is a passage describing the nightmarish image that haunts Alicia: a dead dog on a footpath between rice paddies. The dog has been dead for a long time but “it never disappears; it is always there; it shrinks up, dry as a mummy, then swells up again, lifting its four limbs now and then.”

Why is it that Alicia cannot help remembering the Komori of his childhood? Is it because it has been lost for good? Is it meant to highlight the damage to nature caused by brutal urban development in the Seoul area? When we try to criticize urbanization, we tend to emphasize—even idealize—what is supposed to belong to the past: the loss of bucolic nature, ecological life, traditions. But Savage Alice steers clear of this kind of simple dichotomy. In fact, Komori in the memory of Alicia isn’t immune to waves of modernization. Rather, the fever of urban development has destroyed this small village in many ways. This is symbolized by a massive sewage disposal plant situated, ironically, on top of a hill near Komori. This degradation also penetrates Alicia’s family like foul water. His father, an orphan of the Korean War, had a very hard childhood. He has a son and a daughter from his first marriage, but they don’t love him. Alicia’s real mother is his second wife. A victim of her parents’ violence, she in turn physically abuses her own children. It is not only Alicia’s family that is a victim of this development. Those who live in Komori are all victims. It is as if the place has been poisoned by their poverty and their base desire to make money.

Alicia’s best friend Komi is also a victim of the aggression of his father, a junk dealer, who hates his son’s feminine tastes. One night, watching Komi being abused by his father, Alicia becomes enraged and almost kills the junk dealer. In this moment, Alicia himself transforms from victim to aggressor. As though violently disturbing the normal order of things in Komori, this “passage à l’acte” brings about a natural disaster, tragically affecting the most vulnerable person, Alicia’s brother.

Alicia continues to live with the aftermath of the traumatic event. As is often the case with survivors of disaster, he suffers from feelings of guilt. Hwang Jungeun succeeds in inventing an intensely original voice that lets us physically feel Alicia’s torment. If the women’s clothing worn by Alicia shows the ambiguity of his gender identity, the narrative voice itself is also ambiguous. At the beginning, the story is narrated from the first person perspective: “My name is Alicia.” Then, suddenly, the perspective switches to the third person. But inserted from time to time, an interrogative voice reminds us that this is Alicia who is speaking to us: "How far have you come?" Being addressed in this way, we cannot detach ourselves from the story. To read Savage Alice is to accompany Alicia in his descent into the depths of unfathomable sorrow.


by Masatsugu Ono
Author, Lion Cross Point (2018)
Winner of Akutagawa Prize, 2015

Author's Profile

Hwang Jungeun debuted in 2005 with “Mother,” which won the Kyunghyang Shinmun New Writer’s Award. She has authored the novels One Hundred Shadows, Savage Alice, and I’ll Go On, the short story collections Into the World of Passi, The Seven Thirty- Two Elephant Train, and Being Nobody. This year, she published the serial novel Didi’s Umbrella. Her books in translation include One Hundred Shadows (Tilted Axis, 2016), I’ll Go On (Tilted Axis, 2018), and “Kong’s Garden” (Strangers Press, 2019).