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FICTION

Solidarity in Suffering and Hope: A Distant and Beautiful Place by Yang Gui-ja

  • onNovember 3, 2014
  • Vol.17 Autumn 2012
  • byPark Hyekyung
A Distant and Beautiful Place
Tr. So-young Kim
2002
248pp.

Yang Gui-ja closely examines the pains and struggles of the daily lives of the poor and downtrodden. Her characters, oblivious to the source of their sufferings, often cling to a false hope that plunges them further into the depths of sorrow and ruin. But even as she depicts a landscape of despair, Yang speaks of hope—a true empathic message of those who have known despair and pain. Yang’s short story collection expresses passionate faith in humanity’s dream of solidarity as we live in solitary pain.

A Distant and Beautiful Place is a series of short stories all set in the outskirts of Seoul in an area called Wonmi-dong [literal meaning: a distant and beautiful place] and its montage of colorful characters. The collection begins one winter day when the temperature plummets to below zero. Eunhye’s family is forced to leave Seoul due to financial restraints and settle in Wonmi-dong. The eerie, grim, and moving scene sets the tone for the rest of the short story collection.

Their new neighborhood is largely inhabited by a uniformly pitiful, hopeless lot including a father who desperately searches for a new job after being fired from the old one but can’t adjust to the new one either; Old Man Kang who worked hard and bought land that he blew on his children’s failed business insists on growing crops on a small patch of land despite neighbors’ complaints; a poet who has sustained brain damage after being tortured for participating in the student movement; a former office worker who abandoned his job and family for a life of wandering the woods with a backpack filled with rocks; Lim who came up from the country and did everything he could but can’t escape poverty; a tea house lady who went from one brothel to the next until she wound up opening a tea house in Wonmi-dong as a last resort; and a man who lives in the basement of a boardinghouse and simply wishes nothing more than to conduct his affairs in peace.

But Yang is relentless in her efforts to find the minute spark of hope in each of her characters’ lives. She embraces them the way they are—their follies, incompetence, transparent stratagems, selfish desires, indifference to other’s victimization and misfortune, cowardice, and passivity. Yang sees past the selfishness that is their survival tactic and sheds light on their fundamental kindness. The message of hope in a world devoid of hope, the dream of a better world when the world comes crashing down—that is the enduring message of this long-cherished book that rings true even today.