Tragedy finds its ideal form when a good character is partially responsible for her own downfall, which should unfold with the slow and inexorable force of a moral sentencing. Or so said Aristotle. Likewise, an irresistible blend of pity, horror, and satisfaction emerges through each of Ha Seong-nan’s short stories in this new collection. Even if not all of Ha’s characters are “good”, they still prove to be pitifully wretched creatures.
In the lead story “The Star Shaped Stain”, a mother goes in search of a daughter she hopes is still alive after the death of 22 students in a classroom fire. The mother’s grief is interwoven with the guilt of remembering how she had neglected her daughter, had viewed her as pathetically ordinary, and had once even whacked her for walking too slowly. For Ha, grief and mourning are processes belonging as much to the human spirit as to the degraded body:
Her face was crumpled with pain, but no tears came. Saliva driveled from her parted lips, the way crabs foam at the mouth.
The mother and daughter are not the only opaque characters in this collection. As Ha proceeds to delicately investigate the emotions of each character, the more unknowable he or she seems to become. In “The Flies”, a policeman is forced to relocate from an increasingly expensive Seoul to a small and despicable village:
Lying on his stomach with the pillow under his chest, he wrote by the light of the bulb that came in through the window. He scrawled down a few words and then erased the whole thing.
Not just the character, but the entire narrative can end up becoming impenetrable. After a drunken night of furtive sex with a girl he had been stalking, the police officer comes up against a village which demands he marries the person whose innocence he stole—except that this person is said to be the girl’s sister. The policeman, his own memory hazy, nevertheless convinces himself that the villagers had conspired to wed him to a girl already impregnated by another man.
All the while, Ha’s literary dreamscape remains pristine.
Ha’s stories seem to operate as traps, for characters like the policeman as well as the reader, unfolding at a relaxed, gentle pace until the violent lurch of the final paragraphs. Even the unadorned prose of Janet Hong’s translation is shattered with gusto at the climactic moment of the title story:
My legs moved on their own accord, independently, like a squirming octopus that had been chopped to pieces.
Little had this woman known that such horror would mark the culmination of having rushed into marriage, due to parental pressures upon both bride and groom. The story centers around a princess wardrobe, which her father had promised her as a wedding gift from when she was a girl. Her only compensation for a loveless marriage, it represents the dead quality of a life surrounded with the material luxuries provided by her parents-in-law. This wardrobe, however, becomes her greatest horror when she discovers her husband’s secret and realizes that she is only the first victim of what will become a recurrent scheme.
The hallucinatory logic of Ha’s stories reverberates both within and across her stories. The same characters are making the same mistakes in different ways, trapped within the cycle of Ha’s book. The mother in “The Star Shaped Stain” evokes the mother in “On that Green, Green Grass”, who neglects her son for days on end and ignores warning signs of a dangerous stranger while searching for her missing dog. When she finally finds her dog, she learns that her son has been kidnapped that same night. Just as there is a confusion about whom the policeman had spent the night with in “The Flies,” the woman in “Joy to the World” finds herself pregnant after a night of heavy drinking with her fiance and his three friends, but none confess to being the father. And whereas a failed marriage results from the desire to cling to easy wealth in “Bluebeard’s First Wife”, the failed marriage in “A Quiet Night” is due to the desire to escape easy wealth, when a woman’s husband quits his banking job to pursue his dream of becoming a carpenter, and she is forced to work long hours of retail while keeping up her household chores. She finally asks:
And what had been my dream, you ask? I was so tired I didn’t even have time to dream.
With the end of a story comes the end of another life, fractured by grief, betrayal, disillusionment, or death itself—all the while, Ha’s literary dreamscape remains pristine.