[Arabic] Amidst Alienation and Marginalization, Literature as Savior: Evening Star by Hwang Sok-yong
- onMarch 25, 2021
- Vol.51 Spring 2021
- byKatia al-Tawil
- Evening Star
Tr. Zeina Idriss 2020253pp.
Evening Star follows a young protagonist named Chun as he and his friends try to make the leap from adolescence to young adulthood without any certainty of what they want from life. The novel shines a light on the anxieties shared by Korea’s young generation during the mid-1960s. Afflicted by an absence of ambition and an unknown future, the generation described by Hwang doesn’t know which direction to take, or where to discover its identity, a dilemma which Chun clearly expresses at the beginning of the novel when he says, “I don’t know who I am.”
A Story of Self-discovery
Having decided to leave school to discover himself, Chun travels throughout the Korean countryside with his friend, Inho. Chun narrates most of the story, and through him, the readers discover the different parts of Korea and its people, witnessing at the same time his feelings of disorientation and alienation. Along their journey, the two friends are warmly welcomed by local farmers and laborers, showing the generosity of the working class in the areas they travel through. In this way, Chun becomes a figure not unlike Ibn Battuta, the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler, historian and scholar who famously wrote about his explorations of cities around the world.
Alongside attempts to discover himself and decide his future, Chun tells the stories of his friends and acquaintances. These stories take over the main narrative from time to time, alternating the narration between Chun and his friends. Each chapter thus frames events from a different point of view giving the novel a rounded quality. Chun and Inho’s friendship is reminiscent of the two protagonists in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet: a four-novel series which comments on life in Naples, conveying the characteristics and thought processes of the city’s people.
Despite the comfort that Chun finds in the security of this friendship, readers find that he is deeply troubled by a lack of purpose and that he fears for his future. His pessimism eventually leads to a suicide attempt – and while the attempt fails, his morale is left crushed and scattered. “Where do I go from here? Where can I find the ruins of my former self, my ghost?”
Death Defeats Love
In fact, as readers discover, death is a subject that dominates the novel’s characters and narrative space. In addition to Chun’s attempt to take his own life, readers witness the death of his father and a friend. Furthermore, right from the start of the novel, Chun is determined to take part in the Vietnam War – a path leading to certain death.
Chun and his peers have a tragic perspective on war and dying: as if the weight of death erases any hopes they have for the future, leaving them void of love in the process. Moreover, the reader notices the absence of love stories in the novel, not even mere accounts of mutual attraction between characters. What readers encounter are simply lost bodies trying to escape the hopeless present in the face of an unknown future.
As the characters try to free themselves from society’s constraints, the readers bear witness to their struggles and fruitless attempts to stray from the herd, leaving them adrift in a state of poverty that leads Chun to declare: “I don’t like my life.” This statement distills the very essence of the novel. It summarizes the defeated existence of the young characters, unable to withstand their anxiety and equally unable to break free from it. In so doing, it asserts why their journey of self-discovery is so imperative.
Through Writing Comes Salvation
Evening Star gives readers an authentic depiction of the good and bad in Korean society, exploring family, friendship, kindness, and loyalty. Hwang doesn’t only cover the joyful side of life, but also addresses the concerns of a young generation that wants to know what its future holds. He conveys their desire to break free from the present, their inability to change reality; he also explores the hurdles of poverty and the journey of self-discovery.
In an unexpected turn, writing itself becomes the characters’ salvation. When Chun and his friends begin writing poetry and prose, it becomes their shield against life’s difficulties. Thus, in Evening Star, literature is a lifeline of hope. Hwang’s message to his readers is that literature and writing can save us from the burdens of reality. When Chun says, “Finally, I feel like I’m part of something! Does this mean I’m a writer?”, it becomes a sign that the act of writing has freed the characters, helping them to discover a sense of self. Writing protected them; it became their guiding star, leading them back to the shores of safety.
Hwang Sok-yong was born in Changchun, Manchuria in 1943. After the liberation from Japanese occupation, he moved to his mother’s hometown Pyongyang, where he lived with his mother’s side of the family. In 1947, his family moved to the South and he grew up in Yeongdeungpo. Hwang left Kyungbok High School in 1962 and left home to wander the southern provinces. He returned home in October, and in November of that year he won the New Author Literary Prize from the magazine Sasanggye for his short story, “Near the Marking Stone.” Hwang lived life as a drifter, taking up manual labor and temple jobs until 1970 when his short story “The Pagoda” won the Chosun Ilbo New Writer’s Contest and he began his writing career in earnest. He also participated in the Vietnam War.
Throughout the 1970s, Hwang Sok-yong published a continuous stream of works that became well known such as “Far from Home,” “Mr. Han’s Chronicle,”“The Road to Sampo,” and “A Dream of Good Fortune,” becoming a foremost author in the Korean literary world. For the duration of the seventies, he went undercover working at the Guro Industrial Complex and took part in the resistance movement through his membership in the Association of Writers for Actualized Freedom while penning his epic novel, Jang Gilsan.
In the 1980s, Hwang completed his full-length novel, The Shadow of Arms, which shines light on the capitalistic world system during the Vietnam War. He did this all while working tirelessly to organize the fight to spread the truth about the Gwangju Democratization Movement as well as a variety of other resistance movements. After visiting North Korea in March 1989, Hwang was unable to return to South Korea and took refuge as an invited author at the Berlin Academy of Arts. In 1991, he continued his exile in New York. After returning to South Korea in 1993, he was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released in 1998 after serving five of those years. Following this, he has shown year after year that his creative spirit will not die with the publication of The Old Garden (2000), The Guest (2001), Shim Cheong (2003), Princess Bari (2007), Hesperus (2008), Gangnam Dream (2010), A Familiar World (2011), The Sound of the Shallow Water (2012), and Dusk (2015). He has been awarded the Manhae Literature Prize, the Lee San Literature Prize, and the Daesan Literary Award, among others. Hwang’s major works have been translated and published around the world in countries such as France, the US, Italy, and Sweden.