The Dissection and Defense of Mankind: Kindhearted Bokhee by Park Wansuh

  • onOctober 20, 2014
  • Vol.1 Autumn 2008
  • byKim Mi Hyun
Kindhearted Bokhee

Park Wansuh was born in 1931. She appeared on the literary scene in 1970 at the rather late age of forty, but has been pursuing an extremely active writing career ever since. Now, at the age of seventy-seven, she is one of the oldest writers in Korea. She has written novels in diverse genres including postwar novels, urban novels, novels about women, and novels concerning people in their old age, but one can say that the underlying theme of her work is the exploration of the intrinsic nature of human beings. It is hardly surprising then that recently she has started to write about the elderly. However, in her own words, “it is not only the elderly who read Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’” and likewise she herself has received an overwhelming response from readers of all age groups. This is because the elderly people in Park Wanseo’s novels have qualities that all humans can relate to. For the same reason, her work has been described as “literature that, like a dinosaur, does not stop growing” and “a mighty living tree among Korean novels.”

Nine years after The Loneliness of You (1998), the distinctive features and strengths of Park Wansuh’s literature are again much in evidence in her new short story collection, Kindhearted Bokhee (2007). Of course, in between these two works, she has published fulllength novels such as The Very Old Joke (2000) and That Man’s House, as if she were using a microscope to see what is inside human beings, yet her scathing satire remains unchanged. This anthology of novels is made up of nine short novels published between 2001 and 2006. The keyword that runs through these novels is “scandal.” Park provides deep insight into the true nature of human beings as revealed through various scandals.

A typical example is the absurd scandal in “The Abundant Dinner Table.” This scandal is about the narrator’s friend, Gyeong-sil, who lives together as a couple with her son-in-law’s father less than a year after the death of his wife. She does so in order to bring up her grandchildren, after she loses her daughter and son-in-law in a plane crash. She is also blamed for using the large sum of compensation money left to her grandsons. Ultimately, however, Gyeong-sil does not care about the ridiculous rumors, as she considers the care and concern for her young orphaned grandchildren more important. Her view that “the ‘common sense’ of the world that you can’t explain to children can be ignored” sums up her ‘humanness’ and her logic that transcends convention.

The scandal in “Forty-Eight-Years Old” is also considerable. A woman who diligently does volunteer work by helping elderly men who live alone is so hypocritical that when it comes to the dirty laundry of her own father-in-law, she picks up his underwear with tongs. The woman’s logic is that what one can cope with in the case of other people can be difficult when it relates directly to oneself. From this stems this irony: we have to recognize the inconsistency and duplicity in human beings in order to acquire the sense of justice to overcome it. Hypocrisy inevitably intervenes in all human affairs – it is an essential lubricant. Park’s moral principle is that if one pretends to be nice, in the end one will become nice.

With this chain of reasoning, Park Wanseo dissects human hypocrisy with a sharp surgeon’s scalpel. It is not because people are good, but precisely because they are not capable of being good, that humans must make more efforts to improve. “Candlelit Table” depicts a son and his family who, so anxious to avoid letting his parents know that they have returned home, eat dinner by candlelight instead of using electricity, while “Kindhearted Bokhee” portrays an elderly husband who, despite being paralyzed down one side of his body, tries to satiate his wife’s sexual desire by buying Viagra. In these two stories Park aims to show us the wretchedness of the human condition. However, according to her, human beings are not great “in spite of ” this wretchedness, but are great because of it. In “As Good as Free,” “Eat Up, Hu-nam,” “Nonetheless A Happy Ending,” and “For Nostalgia’s Sake,” a panorama of recovery and optimism unfolds, and in the end, Park has faith in human nature and defends its warmth. As she shows us the intrinsic human nature through “negative film,” Park simply pursues shamelessness without mocking it. Her productive and challenging thought is that it is only by confronting human hypocrisy that human nature can change for the better. 

Author's Profile

Park Wansuh (1931~2011) is one of South Korea's most revered writers who debuted at the age of forty and wrote over a hundred novels and short stories in a career spanning almost forty years. She received several prestigious awards, including the Republic of Korea's Geumgwan Order of Cultural Merit. Her books, including The Naked Tree, My Very Last Possession and Other Stories, and Lonesome You, have been translated into more than twelve languages.