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[Review] Notes on a Roebuck’s Ear: The Hour between Dog and Wolf by Kim Kyung-uk

  • onMarch 13, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byLuis Eduardo García
La hora entre e perro y el lobo (The Hour between Dog and Wolf)
Tr. Alvaro Trigo Maldonado
2019
251pp.

On the night of April 26, 1982, in the county of Uiryeong, South Korea, a twenty-seven-year-old police officer, armed with two M2 machine guns, ammo rounds, and seven grenades, fired at the inhabitants of several villages in the area, killing fifty-six people and wounding another thirty-five, in what is remembered as one of the most terrible massacres in recent history. As absurd as it would appear, what set off the tragedy was a miniscule incident: a domestic dispute in which were implicated a sleeping body, a hand, and a fly. The Hour between Dog and Wolf (La hora entre el perro y el lobo) takes off from these chilling facts to construct a choral novel full of narrative power and distress. In twelve chapters, Kim Kyung-uk tells the stories of the characters that would have the misfortune to come across this dark pulse that leveled everything in its path thirty-eight years ago.

But contrary to what one might think, it’s not a book about a mass murder. Not entirely. And I’m not referring only to the fact that it doesn’t claim to be a documentary work, attached to “real events,” but rather that its central point isn’t death. Nor is it violence. It’s something more. Far from the cold documentary gaze, from the spectacular or cruel, what it offers is a wager on humanity. What is in play is the story of the minimal, the fragile, the fleeting. What is in play is what was lost during that terrible night. Kim weaves, with warmth, a network of voices that manages to place the brutality of the event on a secondary level to the singularity of the lives of its characters, to their ripples and details.

One of the principal virtues of the novel is its capacity to change—slightly or considerably—in tone and density where necessary. Just as the narration grows darker to show the troubled Park Man-gil, it can later turn into a vignette to make way for the imaginative Son Yong-hee or splash in some humor in accordance with the little dreamer Ko Dong-bae. This flexibility allows very dissimilar characters to be truly constituted from distinct textures, such that their particularities are more visible.

In chapter seven, the narrator asks a very peculiar question within the framework of a novel: why is poetry written? And I say peculiar, because for the majority of today’s novelists, poetry is hardly worth considering; it’s something that exists on the fringes, far from the spotlight. Nevertheless, Kim brings it up. This, of course, is not gratuitous; his prose is not overly lyrical, nor could it be called metaphorical (two of the most evident ways in which poetry invades prose). Rather, it’s direct and dynamic, with little space for flourishes. However, now and then there are moments in which some element shocks us with its strangeness: the telephone operator obsessed with respiratory illnesses, the hunter that hits a moving roe deer right in the ear, the man that digs trenches so perfectly that they are works of art. Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the joins, Robert Bresson once wrote.

In chapter ten, Lee Myeong-hye, the six-year-old girl trapped in the body of a thirty-seven-year-old woman, remembers the words of her hairdresser sister: Don’t you think ghosts want to do their hair too?

Poetry, as Kim knows, is written to throw us off.

A peculiar character crosses the pages of the book. It appears under the bed, through the window, in the middle of a chat. It appears uninvited. It is the Ghost of the Korean War. Wherever it goes, it leaves tracks.

The Hour between Dog and Wolf possesses a hard, rough dimension. It’s impossible to set aside the fact that it germinates from a place of pain; the latent abyssal waters constantly threaten to swell and swallow the light. In spite of this, most of the time vitality predominates. Far from morbidity and gratuitous violence, what shines throughout its pages are the voices deployed with passion. Kim constructs a mosaic in which each interior landscape can show its richness before being interrupted. The longings, secrets, and memories are made visible. They are saved, in some way, from disappearance.

 

Luis Eduardo García
Author, Bádminton (2018)
Winner, the Elías Nandino, the Gilberto Owen, and
the Hispanoamerican for Children’s Poetry prizes
 
Translated by Lucina Schell

 

Author's Profile

Kim Kyung-uk debuted in 1993 with the novella Outsider published in the quarterly review Writer’s World. His short story collections are Is Leslie Cheung Really Dead? (2005), Risky Reading (2008), God Has No Grandchildren (2011), and Young Hearts Never Grow (2014). His novels are Like a Fairytale (2010) and What Is Baseball? (2013). He won both the Hyundae Literary Award and the Dong-in Literary Award.