Fiction | South Korea

Diving into the past

Cheon Myeong-kwan's expansive novel “The Whale” retells South Korea's 20th-century history as a feminist fairy tale. Twenty years after its Korean publication, European readers can finally access a modern masterpiece

In the middle of a calm sea swims a big fish. The dorsal fin is above the sea water. The horizon and the sea are pale blue.

A whale dives underwater in perfect symmetry to the frame of the camera

For years, South Korean directors such as Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, Hong Sang-soo and Kim Ki-duk have been internationally lauded. The Netflix series “Squid Game” is among the most popular non-English productions. The only genre that could outstrip Korean cinema is K-pop, which is more popular than ever thanks to TikTok and other channels, which have helped boost big names like the groups BTS, Seventeen, Blackpink and (G)I-DLE.

In contrast, South Korean literature gets little attention. Although Ko Un and Yi Mun-yol have been candidates for the Nobel Prize for years, their books are like those of the last prize winner, Abdulrazak Gurnah from Tanzania: few people know them, and many are out of print. Contemporary Korean literature has only witnessed a few success stories, most recently the novel “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang, which won the International Booker Prize in 2016

Which makes it all the more welcome that almost 20 years after its Korean publication, a narrative masterpiece is now appearing in German translation and will appear in English translation next year. “The Whale” is the magical realist debut novel of author and filmmaker, Cheon Myeong-kwan, with which he won his country's most important literary prize in 2004. It tells the story of two women who assert themselves - each in her own way - in the male-dominated society that surrounds them.

Kŭmbok, who comes from a poor background, has two special qualities. Her smell drives men crazy, and she is able to convince anyone of anything. To make life easier for the fisherman she married as a girl, she set up a flourishing commodity futures business for dried fish. She finds love, however, in the arms of Kŏkjŏng, an exceptionally strong dockworker who later dies in a tragic accident. Torn by grief, Kŭmbok embarks on an odyssey, which takes her through a cycle of war and violence until twin sisters take care of her.

She starts over and makes a small fortune from coffee, which she then uses to set up another brick factory near the town of P'yŏngdae. When her daughter Ch'unhŭi is born, she is taken back in time, because the girl is undoubtedly the child of Kŏkjŏng, who died in an accident years ago. Kŭmbok feels cursed, instead of love she rejects her mute daughter. This experience shapes Ch'unhŭi's life. Already a monstrous apparition, she has to develop a thick skin and goes on to unleash a catastrophe. This brilliant novel also deals with her meandering return to the origins of human existence.

The fish that provides the title appears only twice in the entire novel. Once to catch her breath, when the still young Kŭmbok looks out at the sea off the coast of South Korea, only to dive back into the depths of the ocean, and a second time at the fishermen's slaughterhouse. From this moment on, it seems as if the novel itself becomes more and more like a whale, diving again and again into one of its narratives, only to come abruptly back to the surface and spew out a new fountain of stories.

The story, which Matthias Augustin and Kyunghee Park have translated in an energetic way, also lives from its offbeat cast of supporting characters. They could all be taken from fantasy films: the giant Kŏkjŏng with his steely double bones, a talking elephant named Jumbo, a cinema-loving harbour gangster with a scar, a prison warden with a penchant for eugenics, a man with an iron mask on a vendetta, and a one-eyed old woman with unique survival instincts - these are just some of the bizarre characters that populate this world.

Their stories deal with the laws of nature, ideology, rumours, the demimonde, the street, love and much more besides. Standing out above the rest of the colourful characters are the women who defy this society dominated by male violence.

The South Korean press has praised “The Whale” as an “epochal masterpiece” and compared it to “One Thousand and One Nights”. Indeed, the sprawling narrative is stylistically reminiscent of the latter. It features interlocking stories, a range of settings, and countless minor characters. At the same time, the omniscient narrator repeatedly asks for our understanding that he cannot follow every lead, because that would “go beyond the scope of this book”.

With playful ease, Cheon Myeong-kwan unfolds this adventurous story, breaking all the boundaries of traditional storytelling. “The nature of stories is that things can be added or omitted, they can change their form, depending on the point of view taken by the teller, as well as the convenience of the listener and the skill of the story teller. The discerning reader may simply believe what he wants to believe.”

With these words, the narrator justifies his approach. In unforgettable, fantastical images, the author traces the social abysses of a society that is unfamiliar to us, giving us a close up of this world and making us feel as if we were a part of it. This unusual feminist fairy tale about South Korea's entry into modernity is indeed great literature.

The Whale. By Cheon Myeong-kwan, to be released by Penguin Random House in March 2023