[BOOK REVIEW]A novel where men talk, women fight

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[BOOK REVIEW]A novel where men talk, women fight

On Page 160, Han Sun-won finally has his characters assembled for the setpiece the novel has been building to. We are in the living quarters of an abandoned temple in rural South Jeolla province. It is midnight, or later. Snow falls outside, but ondol heats the room, perhaps more than comfortably.

Chu-ch'ol, an agonized, middle-aged intellectual, has come from Seoul to bury his alcoholic brother, but perhaps also to look for his son, Yun-gil, a radical college student who has gone underground. A cousin, Chu-on, has come too, ostensibly for the funeral but perhaps hunting Yun-gil; it is suspected that Chu-on is a government agent. Two half-brothers from the senior generation are also in the room, Ssang-gyun, a Communist sympathizer before the Korean War, and Tal-gyun, representing the simple goodness of rural people. The late family patriarch of a still earlier generation, who cooperated with the Japanese, is present in spirit.

The five men talk through the night, and at dawn something happens that triggers the rest of the story. The men are mouthpieces for their divers political convictions, yet have been so skillfully drawn in the previous pages that the meeting seems inevitable, the conversation true.

"Father and Son," written in 1989 and translated by Yu Youngnam and Julie Pickering, is about generational conflict. Its deeper references are primal, invoking the gods of Greek myth, who slew their fathers and ate their children. Perhaps patricide is the way human civilization progresses, one character muses ?clearing away the old, making way for the new.

Women have a better idea. Women scarcely inhabit this novel, other than doing the funeral cooking. Yet by the story's end, two of these little-remarked women have stepped forward to show us the way of the chickadee.


by Hal Piper

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