In the Vast Plains of Mongolia: Wolf by Jeon Sungtae

  • onOctober 20, 2014
  • Vol.5 Autumn 2009
  • byJung Yeo-ul

Jeon Sungtae’s Wolf is centered on the tales of Mongolia, which lies on the “border” between civilization and wilderness, modernity and anti-modernity. Six of the 10 short stories are set in Mongolia. The author’s experiences in Mongolia serve not merely as a travelogue of an exotic tourist destination but as “a forceful suggestion for changing one’s life.” The author Jeon Sungtae expresses the special inspiration he felt in Mongolia as follows: “Mongolia gave me extraordinary pain and inspiration. The loneliness I confronted on those vast plains, still preserved in their original state, lingered in me as if I had returned from beyond the edge of the world. Of special interest to me was Mongolian society which had transitioned from socialism to a market economy, and which, oddly enough from time to time acted as a mirror reflecting our own society.”

“Moknan Restaurant” depicts the historical conflict between North and South Korea in small and large incidents set in a North Korean restaurant in Ulaanbaatar. “Southern Plants” depicts the South Korean citizens’ instinctual fear and anxiety about defection and North Korean defectors. Through the anecdotes of a poet sojourning in Mongolia, “Korean Soldier” uncovers the militant culture that remains unresolved in all of us. “The Second Waltz” closely explores Mongolia’s past and present through a woman called Nyami who is fettered by her symbolic role as the “woman of the fatherland” for Mongolians since the early days of socialism. “Chinese Firecracker” deals with the life and death of homeless children, also a problem in Mongolian society. “Wolf,” the title story in the collection, talks of the permeation of capitalism into the Mongolian plains and the resultant destruction of nature and the life of the plains. “The River Crossers” contains realistic descriptions of the harsh reality faced by North Korean defectors and their escape. “Kids Need Money Too” contains the personal experiences of the author who grew up surrounded by nature in the countryside. “Has Anyone Seen My Shoes?” humorously sketches the sadness of one man who has a wife in both North and South Korea.

To the author Jeon Sungtae, Mongolia is both the past and future of humanity. Along with scenes of wilderness rarely found in industrialized capitalist societies, his story vividly depict the wild desires of people living in a society that has yet to turn capitalistic. In “Wolf,” the reader sees the author’s resolve not to forget the mysteries of a primitive civilization in his civilized society. The author’s Mongolian experience does not stop merely at Orientalist feelings or nostalgia for a primitive world, but is firmly anchored in both Mongolia’s and Korea’s present. If a novel can enable the reader to wander while remaining seated, then Wolf will act as a superb guide on this invisible journey.