Stories from the Hinterlands: Wolves by Jeon Sungtae

  • onMarch 28, 2017
  • Vol.35 Spring 2017
  • byJohn W.W. Zeiser
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell

Remarkable of Jeon Sungtae’s short story collection Wolves is that his stories do not revolve around Seoul; rather, they take the reader to places far from its sphere of influence. These places include the Tumen River, the border of China and North Korea, mountain villages in Jeolla Province, the rugged farming community of Desaengi Village on Cheongsan Island, and, most notably, Mongolia, where six of the stories take place. It is in these locales that Jeon weaves his sad, lonely tales inhabited by characters who are trying to escape their circumstances or rediscover themselves. With an attentive translation from Sora Kim-Russell, Jeon’s stories are tangible and his characters multi-dimensional, making Wolves an enjoyable and illuminating read.

Mongolia’s centrality in the collection allows Jeon to explore some key issues that are integral to Korean culture and history. For many of the characters North-South relations crop up, and a North Korean restaurant, The Magnolia, in the capital of Ulaanbaatar serves as a meeting place for characters in more than one story.

Unlike the DPRK, with which Mongolia shared a relationship during the Cold War, Mongolia has gone through the shock of shifting from a socialist to a market-driven economy. For many of the characters in these tales, the opening up of the country serves as a tantalizing yet potentially unprofitable prospect for adventurous South Koreans: “Though Mongolia had become the new travel destination for Koreans in recent years, few people were interested in investing. The biggest obstacle was the six-month off-season in winter.”

The issue of work is vital to Jeon’s stories. For example, in the opening story, “The Magnolia,” the main character runs a tour company that takes groups of businessmen on team-building corporate retreats into the Mongolian steppes. Jeon juxtaposes the formerly Communist state with the rapid growth of neoliberalism with dry, sardonic wit. He is an attentive observer of the pitfalls of tourism and adventure in a place like Mongolia, and this is most clearly highlighted in several stories where the two become intertwined.

Many Mongolians, for example, make for South Korea to study and work, often sans visa. In “Southern Plants” Byeong-seop has essentially been exiled to Mongolia by his wife as punishment for his infidelities. There, he is asked to provide letters of recommendation for ambitious Mongolians to obtain student visas. He rightly suspects that they have heard much about jobs in Seoul, particularly in the construction industry, where they can earn a lot more than they could in Mongolia. For the Koreans in Jeon’s stories, there is a sense of being taken for a ride, so to speak.

At the heart of “Chinese Fireworks,” for example, street urchins become dependent on the bottles and cans that the main character, a pastor from South Korea throws away every night. The relationship of patronage, even with something as routine as leaving out bottles, becomes a conflict between immensely different cultures. The pastor is incredulous and confused by the children’s expectations, but is slowly drawn into their problems. Jeon is careful to allow readers to see characters, like the pastor, who are not wholly sympathetic. They are sometimes resentful of their life in Mongolia, or feel taken advantage of, and Jeon uses this fissure deftly to provide those on the lowest rung to have their voices, and their choices, heard.

Such clashes of culture are an interesting area of investigation, which Jeon handles with honesty and sympathy without being overly sentimental. The title story of the collection provides the full range of these issues, and Jeon expands his repertoire here to inhabit the modes and voices of Mongolians as well as Koreans. It is also the most innovative of the stories as far as style and form are concerned; the bitterest of tragedies reflecting the roughness of life on the steppes.

Wolves touches on many of the contradictions and major issues facing modern Korean society, both North and South. Their antagonisms, the South’s incorporation into the neoliberal world order, Christianity, the specter of poverty in the South and its dire fact in the North are all dealt with by Jeon. He rarely tries to go too broad with his stories, yet they remain rich and full of dimensions that elicit sympathy. 


by John W.W. Zeiser
Critic and journalist