Friday, March 9, 2007

Random acts of Korean kindness

Aristotle’s Golden Mean delineates two extremes: stinginess and prodigality. Although prodigality can border on luxuriating waste, one can never exceed output of kindness. Bybee, being the beautiful and generous bibliophile that she is, introduced me to Korean literature in the form of Lee Kyun-Young’s prize-winning novel, The Other Side of Dark Remembrance, which traveled from South Korea to my letterbox. A slim volume which unfolds at an accelerated and frantic pace, I devoured it on the way to work and back!

The novel jolts to a start, in media res, as the protagonist jumps out of bed. Unsettled by the lack of normalcy in his surroundings he contemplates his usual routine. Everyday he relishes morning ritual; a conscious resistance of up-and-go dedication:

“He considered this darkness he enjoyed with his eyes closed during this blank waking hour a perfect ritual of peace for him. That’s why he made a point to relish this darkness during the morning hours when he was supposed to hurry, and eventually he would sometimes be late to the office or fail to keep an appointment’.

This sketches the weariness and drudgery of the life of a ‘metropolitan salaried man’ married to work and efficiency. Immediacy looms, with the urbanized world polarized between the demand for productivity within the public realm and the individual’s need for creative space. He has awoken to find himself in foreign surroundings. Memory swallowed up by one drink too many. Sense of place gone.

After his inebriation has dissipated, various people recount his uncharacteristic behaviour. Inexplicable is his excursion to Imun-dong, and the mysterious woman assisting him in his desire to go there. With self-cussing regret he discovers he has lost his satchel. The repossession of the satchel becomes his aim, as he seeks to find the contents integral to a lucrative company deal.

The novel ends with rumination upon the insignificance of social ascendancy and the importance of childhood as a formative experience. He vacillates between tenacity and an emotionally corrosive feeling of loss because of his orphaned past. I wish my reading was informed by Korean history though. There’s obviously a lot that my culturally ignorant self wouldn’t have noticed.

The title has multilayered resonance. A scene of literal awakening in the beginning introduces the protagonist's realization of the unusual events. The Other Side of Dark Remembrance plays on the idea of chiaroscuro, with light/dark oppositions used to explore his search for his satchel and solutions. His past as an orphaned child is examined as he comes to value the potential of human connections to overcome adversity and enrich human experience.