Life as a “Mixed Bag”: Jab! by Kim Un-su

  • onMarch 26, 2019
  • Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • byCélia Houdart
Tr. Choi Mikyung and Jean-Noël Juttet

A man contemplates an old punching bag suspended from a branch of the persimmon tree in his garden, its leather slowly degrading from the effects of the weather. This remnant from Choi Jae-Gu’s youth is the starting point for the story of his life, from high school to adulthood. As a teenager, he was unfairly punished by his ethics teacher for watching leaves swirling outside the classroom window. In boxing, this angry young man finds not only an outlet, but also a way of facing up to the world. Years later, now delivering fresh fish for a living, Choi runs into old Silica Gel, his former ethics teacher and once the object of his terrible hatred. Who would have thought they would meet again one day at a motorway service station, or that, reunited, they would laugh together?

In boxing, a jab is one of the basic moves—a direct blow. Here it is the title of the first short story, itself about boxing, from which the collection as a whole takes its name. We meet a bunch of skilled yet careless criminals whose break-in goes awry when they end up locked inside the strongroom they had managed to open. To pass the time, they think up B-movie scenarios and play dice to decide who will sleep with the sole woman in the group. There are relapsed alcoholics who nonetheless know how to ride the waves of fate as they attempt to start new lives, and misunderstood dreamers who are the playthings of twentieth-century Korean history. In “The Writing Workshop,” a man is kidnapped and tortured for being the grandson of an alleged North Korean communist—supposedly the son of a spy who had crossed over to the South, had his cover blown, and then fled to Macao. He is accused of being a criminal himself, and only escapes death—but not torture based on a Nazi method known as wiedergeburt and worthy of Kafka or Kubrick—by making a false deposition. A “constrained writing” exercise (where the novice writer is tortured for his style) ends up as a creative writing lesson where everything is reversed, with the apprentice writer tyrannizing his former torturers to obtain coffee, cigarettes, a computer, a printer—and a little peace. Half nightmare, half farce, this story is one of the best and most poignant in the collection and practically a short novel in itself. I could go on to describe each of these unimposing, stubborn, long-suffering characters, some on the verge of suicide like the young girl in “Dried Flowers.” They are all fascinating, and some of them, like Song Jeongo or the young “J,” are unforgettable. And they are heroes in their own way, whether just for the day or throughout their lives.

Kim Un-su’s tales may be short, but they still convey the effects of time on people and things. They are “just stories,” as Raymond Carver might have put it, and indeed there is something of the American writer in the young South Korean’s unaffected, compact and yet refined style. A certain manner of paying attention to reality, or to what Georges Perec called the “infra-ordinary”: a bulky old leather sofa, an empty bottle of soy sauce, a stone with a coffee stain. The stories are free of preciousness, direct social criticism, and subliminal messages. Each is simply a study probing modern Korean society—a world of rejects, casual work, tricks and schemes, people down on their luck, unhappy coincidences, sultry but faded women, rampant alcoholism, old resentments that never quite fade, hostess bars and port-town karaoke, in which the sleep-deprived mingle with each other or simply scrape by. A landscape of sad places and ordinary rooms, but one where, at the end of the day, the futon is still soft.

Kim Un-su has an unrivaled ability to show us the lives of the serially unlucky. These are stories of unsettled and vertiginous existences, but also of simple pleasures. His concise and humanist writing pays homage to each of these ordinary, minuscule lives, and to the ways in which these men and women simultaneously resist and accept their fate, enabling them (at least in some cases) to muddle through.

Finally, praise is due to the translation by Choi Mikyung and Jean-Noël Juttet, which so effectively conveys the blend of humor, ferociousness, and painful tenderness that gives these short stories their spark.

by Célia Houdart
Author, Gil (2015),
Tout un monde lointain (2017) édit. P.O.L.

Author's Profile

Kim Un-su has written three novels and one short story collection. He won the Munhakdongne Novel Award in 2006. His books have been translated into French, Japanese, and Chinese. He was invited to the Saint-Louis Literary Festival and the French literary festival, “Meeting.”