A sprawling, multigenerational epic, Hwang Sok-yong’s Mater 2-10 tells the story of a working-class Korean family and details their struggles against the tides of the 20th century, from the Japanese colonial era through the division of the Peninsula to South Korea’s economic boom. Their agitation for workers’ rights spans the generations, as does the unique ability of the family’s women to speak and affect events from beyond the grave, both of which define the family and mark the epochs of the story.
The story begins with the scion of the current generation, Jino, climbing to the top of a factory chimney to stage a protest against layoffs in the automotive industry. The isolation of his lofty encampment allows him to commune with his dead family in a free-flowing tale that bounces between eras in a pattern that mimics an oral history, which the author described as a form of “Mindam realism”, and which the translators describe as
halfway between folklore and plain talk: an oral form of history-making in which ordinary folk spin their own life stories through anecdote, humor, and tall tale; realist in its depiction of how things really were experienced in everyday life.
Jino’s recollections atop the chimney trace the family’s history. The book highlights a central dilemma each successive generation has encountered in the face of oppression: does one collaborate or resist? How does one face oppressors, as an unwilling participant or as a committed rebel?
The recollections begin with Jino’s great-grandfather Baekman who worked as a machinist for the Japanese Colonial Railway, much to the consternation of those around him who accuse him of working for the oppressors, and not serving his people as he should. His angry activist son once decried that “Those bastards own you, they’re your masters.”
Baekman’s two sons Ilcheol and Icheol confront the issue of the Japanese occupation in starkly contrasting ways. Ilcheol follows in his father’s footsteps by working with the Colonial Railway, eventually becoming one of the few Koreans to become a locomotive engineer, while Icheol joins the nascent communist movement to fight for independence.
One brother chose to resist and suffers greatly for his choice, never living to see any of his efforts bear fruit, the other brother tries the path of building a life within the system, only also to see little for his efforts after he chose to side with North Korea during the division of the Peninsula after Japan’s defeat in World War II.
“There’s one thing I’ve often found kind of strange.” Says Communist independence activist Kim Geunshik, “Doesn’t it seem like life is always falling short or turning into something other than what we hope for? And it’s usually only after a very long time has passed that anything changes. Compared to the passage of time, we’re no more than specks of dust.”
The author penned the story as a tribute to the Korean working class which has long had to make the unfortunate no-win choice between resistance against colonial or globalized exploitation, or collaboration with nefarious forces in the slim hope of a better life. Jino, the story’s narrator climbs a chimney to help his fellow workers but seems to get little sympathy and at best can only hope for a pyrrhic victory in the short term. Despite the long odds, he thinks back to wisdom his grandmother once shared during the dark days of the Japanese occupation:
The wrinkles around his grandmother’s eyes had grown even deeper as she smiled widely and said, ‘It always looks like you’re losing at first, but in the end, the weak are destined to win. It’s just frustrating that it takes so long, is all.’ Then she added, ‘If you live long enough, you figure this all out. Everyone else knows it, too. They just don’t like to show it.’
The story can be read as either an earnest story with noted sympathy for the workers’ movement and the activism of the Josen Communist Party during the struggle against the Japanese. Indeed the author claims the story was inspired by an aging former activist he met in Pyeongyang during an illegal trip to North Korea. Conversely, it could also be a satire of those who claim to work for the common man, but who are often more involved in esoteric ideological discussion than in actual work, as when the leaders of the communist movement in Korea don’t live in Korea at all and spend far too much time discussing and debating the “Party line” when fellow activists are being tortured to death.
Interpretations aside, the book is translated uniquely, often using untranslated Korean words for terms of address, endearment, and as interjections, which may send the reader looking for a dictionary, but do enliven the story and keep it more faithful to the idea of an oral history. The Yi family can represent so many of those who toiled in Korea over the past century, and whose struggle for rights and freedom from oppression is still ongoing in the present day.