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FICTION

The Darkness of School, The Darkness of Society: Sublime Lies by Kim Ryeoryeong

  • onDecember 21, 2017
  • Vol.38 Winter 2017
  • byKoji Toko
優しい嘘 (Sublime Lies)
Tr. Kim Nahyun
2017
261pp.

A girl chose death. Why? She had friends. She still wanted that MP3 player so badly. In Sublime Lies, Kim Ryeoryeong closes in on the darkness that haunts adolescence. Manji lives with her mother and younger sister, Cheonji. Their father, a sculptor, died in an accident. Now their mother tries to make ends meet working in the tofu corner of a supermarket, but she always comes up just short of rent. Without warning, Cheonji hangs herself with a rope of red thread she braided. Why? Unable to shake this question, Manji begins searching for the cause of her younger sister’s death.

The first culprit is Hwayeon. When Cheonji transferred to a new elementary school, Hwayeon approached Cheonji and acted like her friend. But she also spread false rumors and bullied Cheonji, all the while acting like it was just a joke. When Cheonji tried to make other friends, Hwayeon would get in the way. Why? If she hadn’t, the other kids wouldn’t have paid attention to her. Hwayeon, too, was starved for affection. Her parents ran a Chinese restaurant. They were poor. But none of her friends cared when she was scolded or abused. She had bad grades, and not even her friends respected her. Then Cheonji appeared. Hwayeon clung to her. She tried to fill the hole left by a lack of parental love with Cheonji’s feelings. Feelings she pulled out of Cheonji by alternately bullying her and being kind to her.

But it was her classmates who encouraged Hwayeon’s bullying. They laughed when Hwayeon kept changing the rules of tag to make sure Cheonji stayed “It”; they were overjoyed when Cheonji showed up late to Hwayeon’s birthday (Hwayeon had purposefully told her the wrong time) and all the food was gone. But they never took responsibility for the psychological violence. They were convinced they didn’t do anything wrong. To them it was just like watching a variety show where all the celebrities who show up have something horrible happen to them. But they were the ones who made Hwayeon act the way she did.

So are the children the real culprits? You can’t blame them, either. The school they were confined in was little better than a storage facility. All the teachers did was either beat them or ignore them. Cheonji’s homeroom teacher was new, but she too was one of those teachers. She didn’t care how her students felt, and she never even noticed Hwayeon’s bullying. So why did the parents even send their kids to school? After the Asian Monetary Crisis, business owners and employees alike just got poorer and poorer. “Why is it so hard just to live?” Hwayeon’s parents ask. Parents just didn’t have the time or energy to face their children’s feelings. They just gave them money, sent them to school and then cram school. They tried to lighten their own load as much as they could.

People flock to bullies. Schools don’t fix anything. Parents are too busy to notice. If there had been even one person who could have listened to Cheonji, maybe things would have been different. But Cheonji found herself at the bottom of a valley of indifference, and she couldn’t make the climb back out. For three years her depression worsened and no one knew. In the end, her only way out was death. So was there no way to save her? There were traces of hope. The teacher at her cram school noticed she was being bullied years before and told her mother that she needed to be taken care of. Her classmate Mira tried to stop Hwayeon’s horrible behavior. And there was the long-haired man at the library who talked to Cheonji about her problems. But none of them could save Cheonji. Her mother ignored the warning from her teacher. Mira couldn’t stop the whole class by herself. A jobless man couldn’t actually do anything; he couldn’t even exterminate a few rats.

After tracking down the cause of her sister’s death, Manji corners Hwayeon. “You make real convenient excuses, don’t you? . . . What really happened? Did you really treat her so bad she had to die?” But Manji won’t let Hwayeon choose death. No. She tells her to live and make up for her sins against Cheonji. As long as there’s a possibility we can change, even those of us filled with sin should go on living. The message of this book comes through strong. Kim Ryeoryeong lived through being bullied as a child. She portrays in detail the workings of children’s minds, and her analysis puts a finger on the ills of society as well. This brave work has a powerful message to offer. 

by Koji Toko
Translator and Professor
Waseda University