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. 

Author's Profile

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.