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. 

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.