Revisiting the Stories of Shin Kyung-sook: The Blind Calf by Shin Kyung-sook
- onNovember 3, 2014
- Vol.13 Autumn 2011
- byYi Soo-hyung
- The Blind Calf
In 2008, Shin Kyung-sook published her novel Please Look After Mom, which sold a million copies in Korea. Recently, the book was translated and published in America to positive reviews. Shin’s work became popular with Korean readers with the publication of her short story collection The Blind Calf in 1993. A woman reminisces on her past affair with a married man in the title story “The Blind Calf,” where Shin demonstrates her unique sensitivity and style.
An unfamiliar woman moves into the house of a girl with three older brothers and a baby sister. This woman has usurped the position of the girl’s mother and the girl understands that there must be a conscious distance between herself and the new woman. But at the same time, the girl is drawn to this woman who is different from the other farmwives that are busy cultivating their fields and taking care of their homes. The girl finds herself wishing, “I want to be like this woman. This wasn’t merely because the woman wrapped the baby in a daffodil colored blanket, or because she knew to place green lentil jelly on top of bean sprouts at dinner. The woman saw me amidst all my brothers and recognized me for who I was. A mother is important for a girl at the threshold of womanhood, but equally needed was someone who understood me.” Thus, this woman who bought pretty new clothes for the girl was preferred over the mother who loved the daughter deeply but dressed her in her brother’s old hand-me-downs. This woman who brought into the farmhouse a different mood beyond that of the typical countryside, represents the girl’s hidden dreams and hopes. Yet, the woman murmurs to the girl, “Don’t… don’t become…like me,” before she leaves them for good.
The narrator of The Blind Calf is reticent. She does not offer detailed explanations of her feelings when moving into a house where the children regard her as the enemy, or what she felt about the anguish of the woman who left because of her, and neither the anguish she herself felt to have eventually left the man she loves and his family. Furthermore, she does not offer an explanation of love, family, or her identity as a woman in such a situation. She leaves in silence much of the various debates that could surface in such circumstances.
Time passes and the little girl grows up to be a woman and falls in love with a man. She realizes then that she is in the same situation as the woman from long ago: “Some time ago, the woman who moved into our home…she lived with my father … this woman… please forgive her…Am I not that same woman?” What the narrator wishes to say is embodied in the ellipses. What the narrator hopes to relay is the hesitance that accompanies the understanding that love can devastate a family, which leads to the decision to let go of the man she loves and the lonely integrity that remains. “My father used to put hand cream on the woman after she finished washing the dinner dishes. I don’t know why that’s the one thing I remember. It felt like a dream to see the hands of my father and this woman tangled together in such an open display. The radiant look on my father’s face was one I had never seen before.” The girl, now a grown woman, thinks back on the happiness of her father and the other woman. This kind of happiness was not present before the woman came or after the woman left. Nonetheless, this woman from the past, and the girl who is now a woman, must renounce such happiness and return to their lonely lives. The Blind Calf does not offer the answer to the controversy of extra-marital affairs but the irony of not knowing when one might run into such ironies in their own life. The title The Blind Calf signifies the same thing. What once was is no longer there and the only thing left is the empty space. The harmonium that once stood in the corner of a village elementary school that conveyed the hope of a different life to a little girl, is now gone. And the absence of the harmonium is the only thing that can be confirmed.
Shin Kyung-sook is a writer. Born in Jeongeub, North Jeolla Province in 1963. She made her literary debut in 1985 when her novella "A Winter Fable" won the Munye Joongang Literary Award for Best First Novel. She is the author of seven short story collections, including The Blind Calf, The Sound of Bells, Unknown Women, and Moonlight Tales, and seven novels, including An Isolated Room, Lee Jin, Please Look After Mom, and I'll Be Right There. She has received a number of prestigious literary awards at home and abroad, including the Yi Sang Literary Award, the Dongin Prize, the Hyundae Munhak Award, Prix de l'Inapercu, and the Man Asian Literary Prize.