Thursday, December 17, 2015

G663 Book Review of The House with a sunken courtyard by Kim Won-Il

Name of Book: Madang kipup chin/ The House with a Sunken Courtyard

Author: Kim Won-Il, translated by Sun Ji-Moon

ISBN: 9781564789136

Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

Type of book: South Korea, post Korean war, 1954-1955, daily life, survival, relationships, family, friendships, neighbors, work, selling newspapers, hard-scrabble existence

Year it was published: 1988 (translated in 2013)


An occasionally terrifying and always vivid portrayal of what it was like to live as a refugee immediately after the end of the Korean War.

An occasionally terrifying and always vivid portrayal of what it was like to live as a refugee immediately after the end of the Korean War. This novel is based on the author’s own experience in his early teens in Daegu, in 1954, and depicts six families that survive the hard times together in the same house, weathering the tiny conflicts of interest and rivalries that spring up in such close quarters, but nonetheless offering one another sympathy and encouragement as fellow sufferers of the same national misfortune: brothers and sisters in privation.


There are a lot of characters, and I have to admit that I had difficulty in remembering some of the families and the members. The author focuses a lot on Gil-Nam and his relationship to his mother as well as the numerous responsibilities she had him take on to help support his younger siblings. By some of the scenes I was pretty shocked by Gil-Nam's mother, in particular the scene where he watches dances and his mother catches him doing it and gives him a scolding. There are also characters such as lady from Gyonggido province who has two grown up kids, a daughter and a son and who is a major gossip, the veteran's family from Pyeonggang who ends up being harassed by Korean government, the Gimcheon woman who ran a snack shop,  Pyongyang family that has a son whose sympathies lie with North Korea, then the landlord family who were of prestige and are from Gyeongsang Bukdo Province who make a lot of decisions. The landlord family has a housekeeper named Mrs. An who is sympathetic to Gil-Nam.


Time is remembered through daily life and relationships


The story is in first person narrative from Gil-Nam's point of view and it focuses on familial relationships as well as relationships between neighbors and briefly, relationships between the residents and the government. I imagine for someone not familiar with Korean culture or language, this will be an awkward story because parents are often referred to by their kids' names (Gil-Nam's mother for instance,) and if not that, there also will be odd and unfamiliar names.The story builds through daily actions from eating food to working to gossiping and so forth, and the atmosphere, at least to me, wasn't all doom and gloom but the author does try to show some positive aspects of living during that time and he does a good job of humanizing a time after war where both bad and good events occur.

Author Information:
(From back of the book)

Kim Won-Il was born in Chinyong, South Kyongsang Province in 1942. He published his first collection of stories, Soul of Darkness, in 1973 and it won the Hyundai Munhak Literary Prize in 1974. His first full-length novel, Twilight, was published in 1978. A novelist with more than two dozen books to his credit, Kim's primary subject is the tragic circumstances surrounding the division of Korea


Previously I have read some classics translated to English from Japan and China and for a long time I often wondered if there is any Korean literature that is written by Koreans, and if there is, how come I haven't heard of any? I am happy to say that I finally came upon some Korean literature in English translation, and I'm really enjoying my experience traversing through something unknown. I really enjoyed reading this book and seeing Korea shortly after armistice happened in 1953. The story is very focused on relationshps between the residents and Gil-Nam's family, as well as what they had to do to survive the after-effects of the Korean War. The story is sad, shocking, and full of very interesting symbolism and representations of Americans in South Korea and the citizens of South Korea. Ready to enter a time when fight for life includes sacrificing schooling, when holding different views from the government equals ostracization as well as danger, and to also learn the roots of why Koreans are obsessed with studying and schooling?

This was given by Dalkey Archive Press for an honest review

4 out of 5
(0: Stay away unless a masochist 1: Good for insomnia 2: Horrible but readable; 3: Readable and quickly forgettable, 4: Good, enjoyable 5: Buy it, keep it and never let it go.)

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