Refugees in Purgatory

  • onMarch 7, 2016
  • Vol.31 Spring 2016
  • byNathaniel Davis
Tr. Kim Boram

Like Dante’s Purgatorio, Kang Young-sook’s Rina describes a harrowing journey through a land that’s neither here nor there—an in-between realm of transient suffering, viewed, in this case, through the eyes of a teenage refugee, fleeing the hell of one country toward the eventual paradise of another.

Born in 1967, Kang studied writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts and made her literary debut in 1998. She first came to prominence as a writer in 2002 with the publication of her short story collection Shaken, which set the tone of her later works by exploring the dark side of female subjectivity in the modern world.

With Rina, published in 2006, Kang’s literary world arrives at maturity, while simultaneously crossing over into timelessness. While her earlier works were effective evocations of the anxiety and imbalance of twenty-first century Korean society, Rina removes its characters from history and places them in a mysterious, stateless limbo.

Not coincidentally, the novel begins with a border crossing, with a group of twenty-two refugees—including the teenage Rina and her family—following a series of unscrupulous guides across the frontier into an unnamed foreign land, intending to arrive eventually in the so-called land of “P.” While Kang’s cultural context would seem to point to the situation between North and South Korea, the border theme lends itself to countless allegorical readings. Once over this first border, Rina marvels at the sight of “people leaving shops with happy faces and hands full of merchandise,” although the refugees themselves are all starving. While the border seems to separate poverty from abundance, there is also a sense of a loss of values in this consumer wasteland. This middle land, situated between the oppression the refugees are fleeing and the promised utopia of P, unveils itself as an anarchic purgatory of late-industrial society, where freedom prevails, but so too does greed and corruption. 

While Rina has high hopes for this country across the border, the landscape she is confronted with is a dystopian one: a nuclear-age industrialized wasteland, populated by gruff, unwelcoming criminals, pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers. Far from the paradise of P, this middle country represents all the worst aspects of the past century—the global trauma that gets filtered down through grainy photographs and fuzzy video clips. Environmental disaster, refugee crises, exploitation, and abuse in all their forms: economic, sexual, psychological. For Rina, like the multitudes of refugees fleeing war-torn, terrorized lands in the present day, the final border to P represents deliverance from a terrestrial hell where the threat of harm hangs like the sword of Damocles over the individual’s everyday struggles. 

While bordering on fantasy, Rina is nevertheless narrated with a sharp realism, describing the refugees’ rough passage with abundant detail, sometimes passing into the grotesque when the characters suffer from sickness, violence, and other abuse. At times, Kang seems to be consciously trying to push the story beyond the comfort zones of the general public, luridly amplifying the morbid and scatological elements of the story in order to force an affective response. But at the same time, the novel is pervaded by an atmosphere of unreality, as if the events are the imagined specters of a nightmare, not real tragic occurrences. 

Rina herself seems aware of the fantastic narrative element of her own fate, as she says to a companion:

“When I opened my eyes I was lying in front of a human trafficker. He said to me, how did you get here? Can you tell me? That’s the only way I can set you free. He said he liked fairy tales. So I told him stories every night. Stories of crossing the border, of splitting my shoes open. He enjoyed them.”

We, as readers, are also implicated here, following the grisly details of Rina’s hardships as a form of entertainment, a gruesome picaresque.

But the distant promise of peace across the final border gives the novel a hopeful and eerily comic feel: The sense that things will eventually turn out well lends an air of the carnivalesque to the disturbing proceedings. Finally, it is the admirable strength and determination of the heroic Rina—whose name, the translator clarifies, consists of the Chinese characters for “clever” and “beautiful”—and her willingness to struggle and survive despite the humiliation she suffers that both moves the novel forward and prevents the narrative from submerging into despair.

This spirit of resistance nourishes the unlikely peace that descends as the narrative progresses, and is reflected in Kang’s description not only of Rina, but her fellow strugglers in the purgatorial middle land:

“Some people were playing soccer in the square. They played at all times of the day. Sometimes they played in yellow dust, and sometimes in muddy rain. But they were also able to enjoy, from time to time, a shower of white pollen on balmy spring nights. Rina would rest her head in the laps of the boys who had been ordered off the field for fouls, boys who sat down with their hearts still thumping from the exertion, and she would think that everything was beautiful in its own way.”

This, in essence, is the challenge Kang presents with Rina: to find beauty despite the mud, despite the dust—or even precisely because of it. 



by Nathaniel Davis
Assistant Editor, Dalkey Archive Press

Author's Profile

Kang Young-sook (b. 1967) is the author of three novels, Rina (2006), The Writing Club (2010), and Sad and Delightful Teletubby Girl (2013), and five short story collections, including Shaken (2002) and Gray Literature (2016). Rina was published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in 2015 and The Writing Club in Japanese by Gendaikikakushitsu in 2017. Kang participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2009 and the Daesan-Berkeley Writer-in-Residence Program in 2014.