Telling the Storyteller’s Tales: The Sound of the Shallow Water by Hwang Sok-yong

  • onOctober 26, 2014
  • Vol.19 Spring 2013
  • byJung Yeo-ul
The Sound of the Shallow Water

As Hamlet was dying, he left Horatio his last will. He asked Horatio to tell future generations of the injustice done to him so that his name would not be stained. If Horatio, the only remaining witness to Hamlet’s life, died after everyone else had died, who would know of Hamlet’s sorrow? Carrying out Hamlet’s will meant accepting the fate of a storyteller. The responsibility of a storyteller is to remain alive and record the tumultuous life stories of the dead and orally narrate them. But who will tell the story of the storyteller? Hwang Sok-yong’s The Sound of the Shallow Water is an interesting response to this very question: how does the story of the storyteller get passed on?

The Sound of the Shallow Water starts off with the story of the storyteller Lee Shin-tong and his lover Yeon-ok during the Joseon era. It takes place in the 19th century just when Western culture began infiltrating, and the caste system of the old era came under threat. Lee Shin-tong possessed exceptional writing skills but he was a son of a concubine, and because he was bound by the caste system, he could not obtain a government post. So he did not pursue a path of advancement but instead joined the Donghak Peasant Movement. The greatest way he could contribute was by orally transmitting the various stories of the peasants. With his sole talent for making people laugh and cry by telling stories, he was able to light a fire in the frozen hearts and minds of the countless people he encountered: “When he stopped narrating at a critical point in his story, people threw money at his feet, urging him to continue as they could not stand not knowing what happened next.”

The story then takes a different shape as it is told from the perspective of Yeon-ok, the woman who loved Lee Shin-tong all her life. Yeon-ok looks for him all over the country and discovers not only the life story of one man but also becomes aware of the history of the suffering people. In her quest to find her love, she ends up becoming a storyteller herself.