What brings a city to life in fiction? Written by expat writers in South Korea, the stories in A City of Han lead the reader past the opulent towers and neon-lit facades towards lonely apartment buildings and small alleyways hidden away from view. Each show an excellent command of the short story form and much like the city itself, these stories reveal that there is more than what first meets the eye: an argument for how predicaments and preoccupations of a city’s inhabitants do more than physical markers in defining the character of a place.
Ineffable loneliness prevails. In “Umchina”, a young man finds that his BMW and an Ivy league diploma do little to give him an advantage in the competitive job market. To avoid disappointing his mother, he pretends to spend his evenings drinking in nightclubs while secretly preparing for yet another interview at a big conglomerate company. It has been two years competitive interviews with little success. Through his eyes, we see a city struggling despite its material success. Expensive race cars are visible all over the city, but a closer look reveals that its owners inhabit them in the absence of a home.
In “Long Road”, a young man who works as a courier reflects on his friendship with an affluent office worker who he befriended during mandatory military service. They continue to meet after conscription ends and as Ju-ho returns to his mold-infested apartment, he obsesses over the gap between them. One evening after a night of drinks, Ju-ho confesses he is envious of his friend’s designer furniture and stable job. “You have it all,” he says—words he regrets when sobriety returns. Ashamed of his outburst, he begins to avoid his friend, ignoring the text messages which invite him out to drinks until he no longer hears from him. It is only when a delivery forces him to revisit his friend’s apartment building many months later that he discovers that his friend’s life was not as perfect as it seemed.
“Kyungsung Loop” is set in Korea’s colonial past. A Japanese engineer, Nishimura Hidemitsu, whose task of modernizing the country brings him to Korea, has a chance encounter on a train with an impoverished rural bachelor, Hwang-bo, marking the beginning of unlikely friendship. Over several years, they meet several more times. Each time, the Korean man appears transformed, first into a scholar and then later into a hard laborer. Nishimura Hidemitsu likes to think that it is his generous help that has brought Hwang-bo prosperity, although we also see the ways in which Hidemitsu has betrayed him and his countrymen, first in seducing his girlfriend and in profiting off local artwork. When Nishimura Hidemitsu meets Hwang-bo for the final time, his friend is not sad to see him go; perhaps his friendship was not welcome at all.
A memorable science-fiction story, “Sojourn”, depicts Korea in an alternate reality where people are divided into mundanes and the gifted—those who have extra-sensory powers. An English teacher with the extra sensory gift of observing microscopic worlds witnesses the gift in a student as she levitates her pencil box. She is terrified of her powers as those with gifts are not celebrated but labeled as “deviants” and may be policed and sent away. It is through this extended metaphor that we are offered a glimpse of the stifling education system which punishes those who do not conform to expectations.
In “Mosquito Hunters of Korea”, military entomologist Chuck Finlay recounts the story of a legendary predecessor whose dedication to seeking out malarial mosquitoes has fatal consequences along the DMZ. In a poignant moment, Finlay remarks:
You young folks come here for your year-long assignment, and after a few months, you think that you know everything about Korea.
It is a remark which resonates throughout the collection, establishing a division of the transient foreigners who pass through the neon-lit facades and those who stick around long enough to get to know the real Korea by traversing through the less visible terrains of the country.
In the introduction to this collection the editor of A City of Han, Sollee Bae suggests that Korea has been absent as a literary setting from world literature because it is too bland, made up of concrete buildings, wide roads and grey sky. Perhaps it is not that Korea is too bland, but that those who seek to represent the city need to know it intimately, coaxing it of its secrets just as the authors of the short stories of this collection have done.