In­trigu­ing tale of a life sub­tly cor­rupted

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - DE­CLAN O’DRISCOLL


How, or when, does a life be­gin to fal­ter? Per­haps the mis­takes of youth can be for­given and only the later com­pro­mises, dis­hon­esty and be­tray­als count against a per­son? How might we de­cide? For Park Min­woo, one of two nar­ra­tors in Hwang Sok-yong’s qui­etly prob­ing novel At Dusk, there is no great mo­ment of self-con­fronta­tion or re­al­i­sa­tion, but rather sub­tle point­ers to flaws and fail­ings. Park is not a ter­ri­ble per­son. His faults arise more from his hes­i­ta­tions than from his ac­tions. More, per­haps, from the so­ci­ety of which he is a part than from any res­o­lute choices of his own.

The dis­ap­pointed, lonely, mid­dle-aged, mid­dle-class man is hardly rare in fic­tion, but the man­ner in which Hwang Sok-yong al­lows us to grow our un­der­stand­ing of his main char­ac­ter gives the novel much of its ap­peal. Park Min­woo, a very suc­cess­ful ar­chi­tect, has just given a lec­ture when we first meet him. The de­tails of the talk and all sub­se­quent de­tails come di­rectly from him, so we must judge for our­selves the truth and hon­esty of ev­ery­thing he says as well as be alert to the mo­ments when he re­veals him­self in un­in­tended ways.

We soon know that he has a wife and daugh­ter, but that both live in the US and that nei­ther of them in­tends com­ing back to live in Korea. We see him walk around the area in which he grew up – a town he hasn’t vis­ited in some time – and no­tice how quickly he is dis­ori­ented. So much has changed, but he is part of the rea­son such change has oc­curred. He is part of a com­pany, and a cor­rupt sys­tem of pol­i­tics and plan­ning, that has forced the poor out of their homes – us­ing vi­o­lence if nec­es­sary – to build high-rise apart­ments on the newly va­cated land.


Al­ter­nat­ing with the chap­ters nar­rated by Park Min­woo are chap­ters in which a young woman, with as­pi­ra­tions to be a play­wright and ac­tor, gives an­other first-per­son ac­count of a life, one that is also bur­dened with doubts and re­morse; the in­evitable con­se­quence of ex­is­tence. But she is a kind and thought­ful per­son and it is of­ten the most or­di­nary de­tails of her life that en­gage the most. Her part-time job, work­ing the night shift in an all-hours shop, pro­vides sim­ple, oddly in­ter­est­ing de­tails from be­hind the counter.

Park Min­woo grows up in a slum where ed­u­ca­tion be­yond a cer­tain level is un­usual and only one other per­son, a girl called Cha Soona, goes to school at an ad­vanced level. This al­lows them to in­ter­act and to share an in­ter­est in se­ri­ous lit­er­a­ture (Hesse and Dos­to­evsky are men­tioned) while around them a very vi­o­lent street life plays out. It’s a vi­o­lence that is present to a far greater ex­tent at the gov­ern­ment level, es­pe­cially dur­ing the time of mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship un­der Park Chung-hee and later at the time of the Gwangju up­ris­ing, about which Han Kang has writ­ten in her novel Hu­man Acts. It is at such times that Park Min­woo shows a marked weak­ness: “I sym­pa­thised with those who were fight­ing so­cial in­jus­tices, but at the same time ... I was able to for­give my­self for not get­ting in­volved. Over time this turned into a kind of ha­bit­ual res­ig­na­tion, and it be­came sec­ond na­ture for me to re­gard ev­ery­thing around me with an air of cool in­dif­fer­ence.”


A sim­i­lar abil­ity to re­main de­tached per­sists when he is aware of the ex­tent of the cor­rup­tion in­volved in gain­ing con­tracts to build houses. “We took the crumbs that those in power tossed our way and used them to grow our own wealth. And even if we did pri­vately feel some guilt about it, we all knew the feel­ing wouldn’t last. In fact, we still know it.”

At first the two nar­ra­tive threads seem un­re­lated but, of course, they tighten around each other to be­come like a sin­gle strand, seen from very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. Cha Soona has, it seems, at­tempted to re­con­nect with Park to let him know some de­tails of the dif­fi­cult life she has led since they were close friends. Can events in the past be al­tered in the present? In a video of an in­ter­view with an­other ar­chi­tect, at a ret­ro­spec­tive of his work, he says: “Ar­chi­tec­ture is not the de­struc­tion of mem­ory, it is the del­i­cate re­struc­tur­ing of peo­ple’s lives on top of a sketch of those me­mories.” So it is with this in­trigu­ing novel.

South Korean nov­el­ist Hwang Sok-yong.

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