Irreplaceable If’s: Spring Evenings by Kwon Yeo-sun
- onDecember 10, 2018
- Vol.42 Winter 2018
- bySaori Kuramoto
- 春の宵 (Spring Evenings)
Tr. Chiho Hashimoto 2018248pp.
While that expression sounds gentle and familiar, it belies the challenges faced by the characters in Kwon Yeo-sun’s short story collection, Spring Evenings. The characters have all already suffered misfortunes that can never be resolved before the stories even begin, and the endings bring no simple solutions.
However, after reading each story, I felt as though an invisible membrane had been pulled away, that the limits of my self grew a bit clearer. That sense is one I often get when I read stories written by Korean women who have lived through the same times as myself.
The thing that connects the seven short stories in this collection is alcohol.
Yeong-gyeong, the main character in the titular opening story, is in her mid-fifties and suffers from severe alcoholism. While she longs to be with her partner, Su-hwan, who has been hospitalized with incurable rheumatism, she simply can’t help herself from drinking. Each time she flees the rehabilitation center and the harsh criticism of those around her, her symptoms grow worse, and she ultimately returns. Seeing her live her life on edge, like someone walking across a lake covered with a thin sheet of ice, it becomes clear she doesn’t get drunk so much as she is being eaten away by alcohol.
The next story, “Three Person Journey,” depicts a couple who have decided to get divorced and their mutual friend leaving together on a two-day trip. They argue over the smallest things, and just when you think they’ve made up, they suddenly break into a rage again. Alcohol serves as the on switch to these exchanges, or maybe as a mechanism to amplify their emotions. “A Pair of Slippers” tells the story of three friends from high school. Excited to see each other for the first time in fourteen years, they drink a tremendous amount of alcohol, and, on the verge of unconsciousness, wind up hurting themselves in a way that can never be undone.
The actions of those addicted to alcohol are pitiful, depressing, and sometimes even tragic. However, what truly saddened me was the situation these characters found themselves in: the severity of their very lives. In “Spring Evenings,” the reason Su-hwan’s treatment came too late was because he didn’t have health insurance. If his wife had not vanished, taking their house and all their assets with her, his life would have been much more stable. Yeong-gyeong would not have drowned herself in alcohol, making it impossible for her to keep working, if her child hadn’t been suddenly snatched away from her by her ex-husband’s family.
As I looked upon the characters in this collection struggling just to live, I remembered Hwang Jungeun’s short story collection Amudo anin (Being Nobody). When it was first released many readers mistook the title, reading it as Being Nothing (Amugeotdo anin). The final story in this collection, “Layers,” seems to be channeling that very episode. A man and a woman who potentially could have been lovers, bury their feelings for each other deep within themselves because they are too scared of being rejected as “nothing” by the other. Running in the background of this impossible feat of suppression are the contradictions of society: the educational divide and illusions of perfect families.
Everyone feels pressured under a stalling economy, and no one has the freedom to act on their true emotions. It’s near impossible to recover from even a single failure, and everyday life is itself built upon the expectation that those with nothing will trample over each other just to get by. Though I suspect we in Japan live in an incredibly similar situation, we mystify the structures that cause our suffering, and offer our bodies up to fantasies of “responsibility” and “feeling.” As a result, the limits of the self become unclear, and we often fail to even notice ourselves transforming into the very cogs that move this destructive system. On the other hand, stories by authors like Kwon refuse to look away from the hideousness of reality. Instead, they function by severing individual lives from the oppressive timeline of society through the depiction of time spent drinking. “Annyeong, my drunk.” I think when I learned that annyeong, unlike the Japanese konnichiwa, could be used at any time of day, I understood the appeal of these stories on a deeper level. If only I had been doing that then . . . Spread through these stories about drinking to erase bad luck, loss, and hopelessness are countless “if’s.” If only I hadn’t been doing that then . . . Gathering up all those scattered “if’s,” polishing them softly, and gently arranging them in a box somewhere is an act of kindness, and that kindness will eventually make the reader look positively upon these unembellished responses to this challenging world.
by Saori Kuramoto
Writer, Literary Critic
Kwon Yeo-sun has published five short story collections and three novels. She has received the Oh Yeongsu Literature Award, the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, and the Tong-ni Literature Prize. English editions of her books include “Spring Night.”