[Dutch] A Wounded Soul Returning

  • onSeptember 25, 2020
  • Vol.49 Autumn 2020
  • byAuke Hulst
Het huis met de kersenbloesem (Miracle on Cherry Hill)
Tr. Mattho Mandersloot

Reading the Dutch translation of this deceptively slight novel I was reminded of an old saying taken from the eponymous 1940 Thomas Wolfe novel: You can’t go home again. Wolfe suggested that one’s past is preserved in the amber of memory, a static image polished to an unrealistic shine. But of course this idealized version bears no resemblance to the place that once was, nor to the place that exists in the here and now, preventing us from truly coming to terms with reality.

Sun-mi Hwang’s protagonist, the elderly architect-cum-construction executive Kang Dae-su, is going home again, though not because of nostalgia. Said home is an ill-kempt house on a hill—Cherry Hill—surrounded by a vast tract of land, acquired decades earlier from the previous owners. It’s the place where Kang grew up—not in the house itself, but in a shed on the premises, as his father was employed by the rich family who used to own the property. It was an unhappy childhood, just after the war, tainted by poverty and bullying, motherless and eventually also fatherless, thanks to a fatal accident. Orphaned, Kang was adopted by an American family, again finding himself on the receiving end of bullying. Nonetheless, he managed to pull himself up by his bootstraps. The boy, who never had a true home, became an architect and successful developer of homes. For Kang, buying the property of the rich family his father worked and died for was an act of revenge, though he had refrained from actually visiting the place.

Now, a despondent Kang finally returns. He has been diagnosed with a brain tumor he has dubbed “Mr. Lumpy,” and feels he may be able to find some rest on Cherry Hill. But he soon learns that the residents of the town are encroaching on his seclusion. For decades the townsfolk have been using the abandoned property for their own purposes, turning it into the heart of the community: an old woman tending to a vegetable garden, a girl picking eggs, boys playing, others using the property as a retreat. At first Kang is mired in psychological warfare with his neighbors, even alienating his longtime assistant Mister Park in the process. But through reluctant interactions, Kang slowly learns his version of the past is incomplete and rife with assumptions. Re-humanizing, opening up, and coming to a new understanding, he finds that even in one’s twilight years there is still room for personal growth.

With Miracle on Cherry Hill, Hwang again proves she has the ability to speak profoundly of human concerns through simple stories in an unadorned style. This was already apparent in her fable The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly (2000), an international bestseller that touched on individuality and motherhood through the story of a plucky hen, although I feel this novel has significantly more depth. This may be in part because Miracle is aimed at a more adult audience. But the reader senses there may also be more at stake for Hwang. In her afterword she explains that the book was written during a period of exile and loneliness in Vienna, and was inspired by a chance encounter with an empty chair under a tree. The chair reminded her of the chair she had found in her father’s home after he had died. It’s the weight of both memory and loneliness that is tangible in Miracle.

Good translators are few and far between. That Korean literature has become more visible to Dutch readers—most prominently the work of Han Kang—would not have been possible without translators with a literary sensibility, such as Mandersloot. A universal redemption song like Miracle on Cherry Hill deserves to be widely read, and its translations like these that make that possible.


Auke Hulst
Writer, Singer/Songwriter
2018 Bob den Uyl Prize winner