Hope Springs Eternal: Aluminum Cucumbers by Kang Byoung-yoong

  • onDecember 10, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byKirill Ignatiev
Я - Виктор Цой (Aluminum Cucumbers)
Tr. Nadezda Belova

When I first saw this book, I was afraid that I would not understand it at all. Although I knew what a tremendous influence the musician Viktor Tsoi has had on modern Russian culture, I had only a sketchy acquaintance with the creative work of his rock band, Kino. I’d certainly heard “Blood Type,” probably the most famous of Tsoi’s songs, but I hadn’t liked it at all. Only two songs appealed to me: first, “Cuckoo” from the band’s last album, an indescribably sad song about one’s time inexorably melting away (what makes it sound even more tragic is the fact that Tsoi managed to record only a draft version before he died in a car accident in 1991, and the first lines of the song seemed to have predicted this sad event); and “Aluminum Cucumbers”—a fun, playful song, one of the band’s first recordings, about a man who plants aluminum cucumbers in a tarpaulin field and ignores all the people who are telling him that what he,s doing is meaningless.

What are these “aluminum cucumbers”? Viktor Tsoi himself once said that the phrase had no meaning—how wrong he was! Behind this seemingly absurd metaphor, each of us can find a special meaning of our own. For me, for example, aluminum cucumbers symbolize a protest against the militaristic policy of many modern states (I associate aluminum cucumbers with mines, and the tarpaulin from which the field in the song is made of is widely used in the military and defense industries). I was surprised to learn that the first edition of this book in South Korea came out with this very title, “Aluminum Cucumbers,” and it immediately piqued my curiosity because I wanted to know what meaning it had for the author.

The story centers around the life of a boy named Seungja who has savant syndrome. Despite his speech disorder and slight developmental delay, he is an incredibly gifted singer. Kids who are unlike others often have to face rejection and Seungja is no exception: his classmates at school beat him and his teacher humiliates him. He finds no support at home, either: his mother, unable to embrace her son’s condition, moves away from him and turns to gluttony, while his father, who loves the boy dearly, now has to work twice as much and does not always have the time and energy for him.

But Seungja is not completely alone. At school he has a friend named Jeong who is also not like the others and who has a passion for folding paper cranes. In addition, the occasional visits of his cousin Seunghwi also bring him joy. And, of course, there is the music. Seungja loves listening and singing to the songs of his favorite Korean band, Brown Eyes, and later discovers the music of the Russian rock band Kino while trying to escape from the bullying of his peers. He starts learning and singing the songs of Viktor Tsoi by heart, and the more he does so, the better he feels both physically and mentally.

The first thing that catches our eye is the book’s unusual composition. It has two parts divided into “Side A” and “Side B,” and the titles of the chapters take after song titles by Kino—just like a music album on an old audio cassette. I recommend readers to try and do what I did: before reading each chapter, I listened to the song with the same title. Given the emotional proximity to each other, this is an interesting example of the synergy of music and literature.

Another interesting device is the implementation of several narrative modes. The narrative viewpoint switches between Seungja and his father, and at one point toward the very end of the novel, we see the events through the mother’s eyes, who then opens up in a completely different light. At other times we hear the voice of the anonymous all-seeing narrator, who slowly but surely brings together heroes from different parts of the world.

The narration is non-linear. First we meet Seungja, then witness Viktor Tsoi’s last day of life, and after that, we learn how the main character was born. The author constantly takes the reader from the present to the past, from South Korea to Russia and back again. At the same time, the book reads easily, and when we later learn that Seungja possesses a different sense of time, we finally understand the reason behind such inconsistencies in the description of events.

The author does everything to help the reader understand and empathize with the protagonist. Through the nonlinearity and multiple narrative modes, we know exactly what Seungja feels and thinks, who he really is and what reward awaits him at the end of all his trials. We know that he was born in South Korea at the very moment when the cult musician died at the other end of the world, and that his name, Choi Seungja, is a precise translation of Viktor Tsoi’s name (seungja is the Korean word for “victor” and Choi is the Korean transliteration of Tsoi). And finally, we know that within the weak body of a boy there is a soul of infinite talent.

This is an amazing story about hope, the symbol of which is the “aluminum cucumber.” In the first part of the book, Seungja along with Olga, a fan of Viktor Tsoi who has lived at the singer’s grave for three years, plant aluminum cucumbers by literally burying lumps of foil in the ground.

The first cucumber sprouts into hope for Seungja’s father that his son is not as sick as the doctors believe; the second becomes the hope for Olga that she will hear the voice of her idol again.


by Kirill Ignatiev
Managing Editor, AST Publishing Group