by Hwang Sok-yong (trans. Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae)
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Pub Date 11 May 2023 | Archive Date 23 Jan 2024
International Booker–nominated virtuoso Hwang Sok-yong is back with another powerful story — an epic, multi-generational tale that threads together a century of Korean history.
Centred on three generations of a family of rail workers and a laid-off factory worker staging a high-altitude sit-in, Mater 2-10 vividly depicts the lives of ordinary working Koreans, starting from the Japanese colonial era, continuing through Liberation, and right up to the twenty-first century. It is at once a powerful account that captures a nation’s longing for a rail line to reconnect North and South, a magical-realist novel that manages to reflect the lives of modern industrial workers, and a culmination of Hwang’s career — a masterpiece thirty years in the making. A true voice of a generation, Hwang shows again why he is unmatched when it comes to depicting the grief of a divided nation and bringing to life the cultural identity and trials and tribulations of the Korean people.
Praise for Hwang Sok-yong:
‘Undoubtedly the most powerful voice in Asia today.’ Kenzaburō Ōe
‘Laced with the hard-won wisdom of a man with plenty left to say.’ –The Observer
‘Challenges us to look back and reevaluate the cost of modernisation, and see what and whom we have left behind.’ –The Guardian
‘A powerful voice for society’s marginalised.’ – Deborah Smith, translator of The Vegetarian
‘Moves gracefully between gritty, whiffy realism and folk-tale spookiness.’ –The Economist
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 3 members
Many thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an early copy of this book in return for an honest review.
The book tells the story of how Korean industrial workers fared during the tribulations of the 20th century, starting with Japanese colonisation, through the two wars, and then in modern times. The story is told through the perspectives of one family, across four of its generations. It is also a story of Korea journey towards independence and statehood, the role socialism and communism played in this journey, and how it affects the South Korea of today. Overlaid on this is the role that railroads played in modernising Korea and building one country. Lastly, it is a story of fundamental human hopes, fears, loves, and struggles, without the drama so often associated with them. The form the storytelling takes is often reminiscent of a non-fiction book, and puts more focus on events, facts, and socio-political context than characters.
Lots of things to love about the book. Most of all, I learned a lot. Korean history in the 20th century is something that I just haven't really been exposed to, and this book did a great job in shedding light on some of the more complex aspects of it, while remaining entertaining. I also learned a lot about the story of the working men and women of Korea, and the role their class awareness played in the history of the peninsula overall. The microcosm of events the author delves into (especially the tension between the Korean independence sympathisers on the one hand, and the Koreans collaborating with Japanese occupation) provide fertile ground to understand better the root causes for the split between the Koreas. Fascinating.
The thing I struggled most with was the relatively dry style. I have to admit I'm much more excited about character driven stories, and this one was not. It was difficult for me to read (took almost 3x the time than an average book), and I struggled sometimes to push through. I did find it fundamentally interesting, and I just didn't want to give up on the opportunity. Eventually, the outcome was great, and I'm very happy to have gone through this, but I just can't say it was easy.
The book is a monumental piece of Korean literature, reflecting incredible depth of research, and attuned to the nuances of the national psyche and its root causes. Highly recommended to anyone interested in Korean history, history overall, and how average human beings persist and survive over generations of unrest.
I am into Korean literature and I am fascinated by the story of their country as they went through a lot in the past 100 years or so.
This book is very well researched and has lots of information from a different point of view of what I am used to reading. Very informative!
The only downside for me is the style of writing, as it is a novel but it reads like a very dense non-fiction and for that reason it did not hit the mark as I expected.
In 2011, Kim Jin-suk returned to ground level after over 300 days living on top of a crane in a Busan shipyard. Kim’s feat of endurance was part of a wider protest about massive layoffs by a large, ship-making company. Kim’s action was hailed as successful, but it’s just one example of numerous, high-altitude sit-ins that remain a feature of South Korea’s particular protest culture. Hwang Sok-young’s novel revolves around a similar event, Yi Jino a middle-aged, former factory worker is installed on a narrow platform around a public power plant, located high above Seoul. Yi Jino’s goal is to get his former employers to reconsider policies that cost him his job - along with many of his workmates. As Yi Jino endures months of extreme isolation and exposure to the elements, he’s visited by ghosts of former friends and family, whose experiences are interwoven with Korea’s past, dating back to the early years of the Japanese occupation.
Successive generations of Yi Jino’s family were employed on the railway lines built by Japan using forced labour, across land stolen from Koreans, altering its landscape and infrastructure. Hwang’s original title, roughly translated as Three Generations of Rail Workers, suggests a deliberate counter to Yom Sang-seop’s classic account of colonial era Korea Three Generations which dealt with a rarefied group of middle-class Koreans -relegating ordinary people to the sidelines. Instead, through tales of Yi Jino’s ancestors, as well as their partners, brothers, friends and co-workers, Hwang commemorates countless, nameless, forgotten workers whose labour enabled a modern, industrialised Korea. As family ghosts commune with their living descendants, Hwang blends folkloric, Korean traditions with a dense, docu-style in an approach he refers to as ‘mindam realism.’
Hwang’s novel took over 30 years to produce, which perhaps explains its uneven structure and style. The story’s slow to take off, moving backwards and forwards in time and so meticulously detailed that key events sometimes struggle to emerge from pages of surrounding description. But equally there are numerous, exceptionally vivid episodes, especially the intense middle sections focused on members of the communist resistance movement stalked by Japanese-controlled, Korean police officers. The suffering and the resilience of the resistance is palpable, as is their horrific treatment by Korean collaborators, as Hwang’s characters journey through an era of political awakening that was met by fierce repression.
Throughout his narrative Hwang traces connections between the brutality of the Japanese occupation and brutal methods deployed during later periods – the kind associated with events like the Gwangju massacre. Here represented, in part, as stemming from the activities of the post-WW2, US military government whose investment in an emerging Cold War contributed to the virulent suppression of Korean workers’ rights, along with unions, and any popular, left-wing movement they feared might encourage communism. As with post-WW2 Germany, the American administration retained so-called ‘expert’ individuals formerly instrumental in upholding pre-WW2 Japanese rule. Korean officials who aided the US administration in violently breaking the 1946 General Strike and later Daegu Uprising – something Hwang represents through his characters’ specific experiences. Hwang links the tactics of these Korean forces, with their sophisticated torture techniques first used during the Japanese occupation, to the appalling treatment of suspected Korean dissidents under subsequent, right-wing, militaristic regimes.
Hwang also sets up parallels between the exploitation of workers under South Korea’s contemporary brand of capitalism - with its outsourcing of jobs to non-unionised settings, increasing casualisation, and high suicide rates by redundant workers – and Korean workers in colonial times. Although I think his depiction will resonate with anyone experiencing the fallout from the growing precarity of work under global capitalism. Hwang’s fiercely political novel is in keeping with his own activist background, a fascinating, often moving, portrait of resistance against seemingly overwhelming forces and a refusal to abandon belief in the possibility of change. Translated by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae.