[Vietnamese] Remembrance of Things Mundane: Oh The Humanity by Song Sokze

  • onOctober 4, 2021
  • Vol.53 Autumn 2021
  • byDr. Quyen Nguyen
Con người hỡi ôi
Tr. Vo Thi Khanh Lan

W.G. Sebald, the legendary novelist whose works mostly center on memory, contemplated that, “Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle.” In the same reflective vein on the importance of reminiscence, Song Sokze, a gifted and celebrated Korean writer, touches on the sudden emergence of seemingly buried memories in his portrayal of trivialities in Con người hỡi ôi.

Comprised of eight short stories mostly about contemporary Koreans (except for one that is a historical tale set in the Joseon period), the collection swarms with mundane characters whose travails as well as comforts are placed at a focal point. Modern life is realistically limned in a series of absurd and comical situations that present people in their unpolished states: a car accident between a short-tempered middle-aged man and a senior wearing a hearing aid that leads to a quarrel about indemnity; a blind date that leaves one cold because of an unsolicited ecological lecture; a self-taught cultural tour guide who shamelessly upgrades himself to an expert in history. Song’s protagonists make no endeavors to camouflage themselves, but are rather being their truest selves: imperfect, whimsical, and disillusioned. Their characteristics strongly resonate with the author’s dreary vision of the world as a place full of chaos in a time of climate change and globalization.

Song skillfully employs memory as a recurrent device to blur the line between past and present, transforming apparently mediocre stories into fascinating ones. As Song himself remarks in the author’s note, we can create the future by preserving the present, because “today originates from the memories of yesterday.” The depiction of the characters’ quotidian activities is thus colored by the act of recalling: a protagonist’s rumination on his encounter with a lonesome wanderer who escaped from Korea to tristes-tropiques Laos in order to avoid leading a pointless existence in “Phương nam” (“The South”); an unexpected mobile message producing an uncontrollable gush of sweet memories of first love in “Tuyệt mỹ” (“A Eulogy”); a tale about a childhood friend adroit at mixing fact with fiction to construct countless personas for himself in “Linh hồn mê muội” (“The Possessed Soul”); or the immortalization of a departed father thanks to an overcoat that the son inherits from him in “Chiếc áo khoác” (“The Overcoat”); or the unjust death of an upright man who lapsed into oblivion in “Yu Hee” (“Yu Hee”), to name a few. Memory is not merely a tool to make people nostalgic, but a means to transport deeply contemplative messages on how modern life renders us lonely and isolated. It is also used to help us keep balance and to seek a haven in the mind.

Not every story, however, is equally enjoyable and well written, and several parts are lengthy and tedious. Perhaps, the most outstanding work is “Luân khúc” (“Rondo”) which demonstrates Song’s artistry at its peak. The reader knows he is in the hands of a master storyteller when every single reading expectation is challenged and ultimately rejected. “Luân khúc” consists of three parts in which the reader is lured into the narrative’s trap as he or she tries to make a connection between them, only to be greatly disoriented at the end because of their irrelevance.

Song’s brilliant gift for storytelling also lies in his ability to create witty stories written in deadpan prose. In the titular story, a guy spews out endless words to his date, ranging from shrimp and chicken farming, to GMOs, to the pathogen E.coli O-157, to the revenge of the animals on meat-loving humans. A story within a story, or rather several environmental documentaries within a story, nonchalantly recounted by the male protagonist, makes the story farcical and toxically grave all at once.

Deftly capturing various aspects of our complex and multifaceted world, Song shows us how remembrance is a way to preserve the history of mundane things and people. His writing transcends them into something spectacular. Con người hỡi ôi is a small gem in a market that is saturated with more familiar names from Korea such as Han Kang, Kim Young-ha, and Kyung-sook Shin.



Dr. Quyen Nguyen
Literary Critic

Author's Profile

Song Sokze is a poet and novelist. His short story collection The Amusing Life is set to be published by Dalkey Archive Press at the end of 2016. His works have been translated into English, Chinese, French, and German. He has received the Hyundae Literary Award, Dongin Literary Award, and Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award. His short story “The Man Who Writes Stories” was adapted into a Korean movie titled Dance with the Wind.