An Ode to the Marginalized Youth: Hesperus by Hwang Sok-yong
- onOctober 20, 2014
- Vol.2 Winter 2008
- byShim Jinkyung
The story of various characters’ anguished and disappointed adolescence while they try to forge their own way of life draws sympathy with adolescents today.
Hwang Sok-yong’s Hesperus marks an unprecedented approach and a great change in his oeuvre. Hwang is a seasoned writer of 65 who has been writing for 45 years, a venerable length of time. Hwang, after 45 years of meeting his readers through paper and ink, discovered the Internet, more specifically the blog, as a new means of communicating with his readers. The novel was posted in a series on his blog for six months, during which the site logged 1.8 million visitors. The book has been a steady bestseller since its hardcopy publication in August 2008. The fact that the main readership of Hesperus is not made up of middle-aged readers who grew up learning sociopolitical criticism through Hwang’s “The Land of Strangers,” “A Chronology of Mr. Han,” The Shadow of Arms, and Jangkilsan, but the teens and young adults who had met him through “The Road to Sampo” in their Korean literature textbooks, proves that Hwang’s works are still in style.
It is a well-known fact that Hwang went through an important turning point in his life when he attended the 1st Transnational Festival in Pyeongyang in August 1990. He stayed in Berlin and New York for a few years before returning to Korea in 1993, whereupon he was imprisoned for his attendance at the 1990 festival, sentenced to seven years in confinement, then was released in 1998. Inspired by his broadened world view since his visit to North Korea, Hwang revealed a new side of himself through An Old Garden (2000), The Guest (2001), Shimcheong (2003), and Princess Bari (2006). Instead of being overwhelmed by the gargantuan discourse of sociopolitical reality, Hwang sought to focus on the inner turmoil and strength of those pursuing small pleasures in everyday life, and also attempted to turn traditional rites and myths into a new form of fictional text, and find a traditional voice on a modern platform.
Hesperus is representative of Hwang’s exploration of new frontiers. Jun, the protagonist of the novel, comes home for a visit before being drafted to Vietnam. The story unfolds as he reminisces on the past. Jun’s friends, Inho, Sangjin, Jeongsu, Seuni, and Mia all refuse to take the elite track guaranteed by their competitive high school, and go out into the world in search of their own paths full of revelations and despair. Thus, the storylines follow the travels and adventures of the young adults who venture outside the boundaries set by their school. On the way, the readers encounter intellectual circles that formed around music cafes and school clubs, and a slice of 1960s Korea through backpacking stories and construction site pilgrimages. In the process, Jun comes to the crude realization that the stories he had been writing were images of empty shells, and vows to find his personal and literary identity in the rumble and tumble of reality. The title, Hesperus, comes from his newly discovered self. This Hesperus is the same star, but different from the last star hovering at the dawn in that it appears in the western sky after dinner, right around the time when dogs begin to wish they would get leftovers soon. Instead of aspiring to be the last glittering star at dawn, Hwang embraces a new personal literary beginning in the useless, wretched lonely image of a dog gazing hungrily at the evening stars.
Hesperus is a bildungsroman of those who lived and grew up over 40 years ago that is well-loved by the youth of today. The book speaks to the small, helpless people we see in ourselves sometimes, and the sense of inferiority and marginalization that marks a literary turning point for a venerable author.