“Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River” by Jung Young Moon

Jung Young-moon Jung Young-moon

There are many novels by Western authors sojourning in Asia. Stories that go the other way around are as rare as hens’ teeth.

The unnamed narrator in Jung Young Moon’s newly translated novel explains that the novel is “written by someone who doesn’t know much about Texas because he doesn’t know about Texas…”. Jung is well-known in South Korea, especially for his quirky stories and characters. Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River is a perfect example of this.

 

Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River, Jung Young Moon, Yewon Jung (trans) (Deep Vellum, December 2019)
Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River, Jung Young Moon, Yewon Jung (trans) (Deep Vellum, December 2019)

Jung nevertheless shows in this roman à clef inspired by his time at an artist’s and writer’s residency in the State, that he knows a lot more about Texas than most Texans, segueing from topics like the Space Shuttle Challenger’s demise (the remains mostly ended up in Texas) to Jack Ruby’s assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald (which took place in Dallas). He also tells of a fascinating socialist commune started by Victor Prosper Considerant in 1855. (Considerant wrote the Democracy Manifesto five years before Marx and Engels penned The Communist Manifesto.) Located in eastern Texas, La Reunion was inhabited by 200 pioneers from France, Belgium, and Switzerland. It sounds like an odd place to start a commune, especially as the members had no experience in farming and living on land that was primarily farm land. Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River is full of tidbits like this.

This free association style isn’t confined to the narrator. In the first half of the book, the narrator walks into a cowboy bar in Texas and chats with a local over drinks. The cowboy speaks in a soliloquy about farms, guns, animals, and oil, but in a way that one subject didn’t relate to the next.

As for the title, the samurai:

 

… came to mind when I thought, being sick and tired of saying this and that about Texas, that I needed something that went completely off on a tangent, but I didn’t know what they had to do with the Akira Kurosawa movie by the same title which I’d seen long ago and remembered almost nothing about, aside from the fact that seven samurai appeared in it…

 

Jung brings the seven samurai back several times, including when he spends several pages listing plot ideas for future novels. He is no stranger to novels, and participated at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Korea Study. Besides his reputation as a cult novelist in South Korea, he has also translated more than forty English titles into Korean.

Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River opens a window into a non-traditional narrative prose style, one originally written in Korean for Koreans; the fact that it is about Texas gives English readers more points of contact than they would otherwise have. Jung’s observations about a very American place like Texas are insightful and show what it’s like for outsiders to integrate into a place that is known for its insularity.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.