Yu Miri in her novel The End of August tells an extraordinary tale: the saga of her Korean family and the story of their nation. Her story spans space and time, giving voice to both the living and the dead. It is a tale of Korea, from the brief, failed attempt to stand at the end of the 19th century as an empire against Imperial Japan, through the colonial period that ended with Japan’s surrender in the Second World War in 1945, to the postcolonial period that came to a close at the end of the 1970s. Settings range from her ancestral village in colonial Korea to Japan’s wartime continental empire in Manchuria and occupied China to Japan. Characters speak Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, some of them switching from one language to another as circumstances demand. For a Western analog, think of the mix of Spanish and English in the Junot Diaz novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In a word, Yu’s novel is ambitious. Running to 710 pages in its English hardcover version, the book is impressive in size.
Yu Miri is a prominent and prolific zainichi (a Japanese word for Koreans born and raised in Japan) writer, born in 1968, who has penned many novels, plays, essays, and memoirs in Japanese. She has won major Japanese and international literary awards, including the prestigious Akutagawa Prize and the 2020 National Book Award for Translated Literature. The End of August is her third novel to appear in English translation.
To tell the tragic story of Korea, Yu Miri dove deep into history.
Much as an opera’s overture introduces the audience to elements that will appear later in the performance, the Korean shaman ceremony in the novel’s first chapter introduces readers to the character Yu Miri and, through the female shamans (mudang), three spirits: her grandfather, the marathon runner Yi U-chol (Lee Woo-cheol in the translation—more on which later); his younger brother Yi U-gun (Lee Woo-gun); and a young girl from their village of Miryang, Kim Yong-hui (Kim Yeong-hee). In the shaman ceremony that has called forth the dead to speak to the living, readers learn what lies ahead in the story. As for the author’s eponymous alter-ego, the character Yu Miri, her grandfather tells her to make a record of what she is hearing:
… write down the voices that echo
in the darkness before they’re swallowed by the wind
in-hale ex-hale write it all down
The novel is no easy read. The marathon runner Yi U-chol’s steady breathing in and out appears at the story’s beginning and end, breaths recorded in passages written in a stream of consciousness similar to the writing in parts of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The Korean language pervades this tale, with countless Korean words, even phrases and sentences, appearing for the most part without translation. Readers will understand some words by context. Others will be a mystery. Readers will embrace the style for plunging them into a Korean milieu or alternatively find it a hard slog. The author also notably inserts music—from traditional Korean songs to Japanese military music—and newspaper headlines and stories into the story in a way reminiscent of the writing of John Dos Passos in Manhattan Transfer.
The three spirits are the main characters of the story. Yu Miri’s grandfather, the marathon runner, could well have won a gold medal at the phantom 1940 Tokyo Olympics, which was canceled due to the Second World War. His ambition thwarted by one war, he suffered again in the civil conflict in postwar Korea that exploded in the Korean War. Yi barely escaped death in a prison for suspected communists as the Korean People’s Army invaded the Republic of Korea (ROK) in 1950, making his way to the safety of Japan and becoming the operator of a pachinko parlor. His younger brother, another runner who could have won Olympic gold, died a communist operative in the ROK, killed by fellow Koreans, shouting with his last breath his loyalty to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Kim Yong-hui, young and naive, deceived by a Japanese recruiter who promised her a good factory job overseas, suffered before her death the pain and humiliation of servicing soldiers as a comfort woman in a Japanese military brothel in China.
The End of August is an extraordinary, ambitious novel of the author’s family and her country.
Yu Miri was able to turn to family lore to tell the tale of her ancestral village and sprawling family, which included her grandfather’s several wives and mistresses as well as his many children and grandchildren in Korea and Japan. In the original Japanese, the novel comes with a bibliography of Japanese and Korean works of history that runs to nine pages. To tell the tragic story of Korea, Yu dove deep into history.
Morgan Giles, whose translation of Ueno Tokyo Station won for Yu Miri the 2020 National Book Award, took on the nearly impossible task of translating The End of August, which requires a knowledge of Korean and Chinese as well as Japanese.
The translator’s renderings of Japanese passages read well. Some of her solutions are impressive. Yu Miri’s ancestral hometown is Miryang. At one point, a Japanese colonist refers to the place as Mitsuyo, the Japanese pronunciation for the Chinese characters behind the Korean name. A tip of the hat for such attention to detail.
Somewhat problematical, however, is the choice to present Yu’s countless Korean words, phrases, and whole sentences in transliteration without English translation. In Yu’s original novel, those parts are largely written in Japanese, with the Korean rendered in Japanese katakana script placed alongside the main text (this notation is known as furigana). This way, Japanese readers readily understand the text while enjoying the immersion in Korean from the furigana. Readers of the English translation, other than those of Korean heritage and readers who have studied the language, will have a tough time understanding some of the Korean words.
At a more granular level, Giles is inconsistent in her transliteration of Korean names. There are several systems from which to choose, from the venerable McCune-Reischauer system and its offshoots to Seoul’s newer one. The problem here is that Giles is inconsistent, using the two major systems together and adding non-standard renderings to the mix. For example, she renders the name of the main character —Yi U-chol in McCune-Reischauer, I U-cheol in Seoul’s system—“Lee Woo-cheol”, the surname and first element of the given name lying outside any system. Others in the novel suffer the same distracting misfortune with characters Pak, Chi, and Yun becoming Park, Chee, and Yoon. There are also occasional mistakes in transliterations of Korean or Chinese, such as mistakenly writing “inmida” instead of “imnida” (“I am”).
Historical terms suffer at times from a similar inconsistency. In one passage referring to territories of the Japanese Empire, she correctly uses the Japanese term Karafuto for what today is the southern half of Sakhalin Island, but then uses the Russian term Kurils for the island chain then known by its Japanese name: Chishima. Elsewhere, she refers to the Japanese-controlled city of Dairen by its postwar name of Dalian and the colonial Bank of Chosen by the anachronistic term “Bank of Korea.”
Such issues aside, The End of August is an extraordinary, ambitious novel of the author’s family and her country. Younger readers, in particular, accustomed to a Korea of androgynous boy bands and other aspects of contemporary hallyu pop culture will find in the novel’s pages quite another country from a very different time.