This collection of short stories presents the grim reality of war-torn Manchuria in the 1930s. Despite the extreme poverty and brutality depicted, such is the skill of author Kang Kyeong-ae that her oppressed characters achieve a kind of nobility, at least in art if not in life.
The effect is realized mainly by Kang’s matter-of-fact style. While the stories concentrate on the lives of, for example, widows striving to raise children alone, their suffering is never sensationalized. Kang merely states the details (which can be distressing) without any emotional gloss—that is left to the reader to supply. Her characters are subjugated, tortured or driven to desperate action but they are shown to be resilient to the end. They may not be heroes, in the winning sense of the word, but they are certainly heroic.
The dispassionate tone also lends a horrible authenticity to the telling, reinforced by the fact that Kang, a displaced Korean national, lived in Manchuria at the time and would have had first-hand experience of her subject matter. It’s important to read the introduction to the collection which details the complicated history of the time. Many different ethnic groups were battling for possession of the land including the Chinese, local Manchurian warlords and the Japanese, who ultimately gained control. The lowest in the pecking order were the Koreans, whose homeland had already been annexed by the Japanese, forcing emigration for some to other nations, including Manchuria.
Shot through this mish-mash of conflicting interests was communism. Kang herself was a fully paid-up member; an ideology she upheld until her death. To do so was obviously an external struggle as well as an internal one. Many of the stories reflect on broken promises, for example, as characters shift allegiances, typically for personal gain. Kang may have doubted her own principles at times too, as exemplified in the first story of the collection, “Manuscript Money”. In it, a female writer sells her work for a substantial sum then is reluctant to use the money to help a sick comrade rather than spending it on a new dress for herself.
As would be expected, the female writer sees the errors of her ways and here is the lesson for the reader. Kang is keen to show that while the people in charge may change, they all have a common characteristic. As the unnamed protagonist in “Salt” says: “… the real enemies were the rich bastards who were stealing her salt!”
The logical result of unrestrained greed is the end of society. In the one story which comes close to nihilism, “The Underground Village”, Kang shows what happens when humans are stripped of any kind of sustenance or material goods. The family portrayed is reduced to the level of animals with no care for proper sanitation or any grasp of basic healthcare. Normal values are inverted so that, when the neighbour’s daughter is to be sent off for “marriage” to an unknown man in a faraway town, it becomes a cause for celebration. The ending of this particular tale is unhappy; the characters don’t bear their suffering gallantly; and all hope is extinguished.
The collection was produced with funding from English PEN, an organization which supports the freedom of authors to state their views. Writing as a woman and a communist, Kang’s stories give a unique perspective on the troubled and violent society in which she lived. Although today the names and nationalities of the “rich bastards” have changed, Kang’s insights into inequality are as pertinent now as they were then.