“Whale” by Cheon Myeong-Kwan

Cheon Myeong-kwan Cheon Myeong-kwan

Cheon Myeong-Kwan’s Whale is a sweeping epic mostly set in Pyeongdae, a remote mountain town that immediately evokes Macondo from Gabriel García Márquez’s similarly sprawling epic One Hundred Years of Solitude. Depicted with the same sort of dreamlike magical realism, Pyeongdae goes from a forgotten mountain hamlet to a booming railway city to a ghost town set against a fun, witty satire of Korea’s development from a Japanese colony to a prosperous independent republic. Whale features a vast cast of characters with deep and convoluted backstories, tracing their lives through bizarre, surreal adventures and setting them up for chance encounters and lucky happenstance that drives the plot and weaves an interconnected web of stories that breathe life into an imaginary town.

The protagonists of the story are a series of women whose depictions both satirize and humanize the life stories of many who lived through the mid-20th century in Korea, as in Chunhui, or Girl of Spring:


She was born one winter in a stable to a beggarwoman, as the war was winding down. She was already seven kilos when she emerged and plumped up to more than a hundred kilos by the time she turned fourteen. Unable to speak, she grew up isolated in her own world. She learned everything about brickmaking from Mun, her stepfather.


The heroines include an old downcast woman who struggles all her life, yet saves an enormous amount of money as revenge against all who have wronged her;  a woman blinded by a vengeful mother and sold for two jars of honey to a farmer at the tender age of 13; a girl from a remote area who goes to a port to escape her father, only to be haunted by his death and driven by an overwhelming drive for business success; and finally the heroine of the story: a mute woman of unusually large size who can talk to elephants, and was wrongly imprisoned for a fire she didn’t start.


Whale, Cheon Myeong-Kwan, Chi-Young Kim (trans) (Europa, January 2023; Archipelago, April 2023)
Whale, Cheon Myeong-Kwan, Chi-Young Kim (trans) (Europa, January 2023; Archipelago, April 2023)

The story itself broadly follows Geumbok, the driven woman from the provinces, who, inspired by a breaching whale she glimpsed the first time she saw the ocean, aims to build a successful life.


When she saw the blue whale from the beach, she had glimpsed what eternal life looked like, life that had triumphed against death.


She applies her considerable luck and acumen to succeed in nearly every endeavor. Her life is the central broad thread that all others are connected to, and it is with her rise and fall that the entire town of Pyeongdae booms and busts.


The setting of the story is surreal and dreamlike, yet beautifully depicted with airy descriptions and complemented with witty dialogue. The plot is quirky and is often interspersed with comments addressed to the reader from the author on the nature of storytelling itself. Each character’s story takes on some aspect of the history of 20th-century Korea, from the effects of corruption, nepotism, and corporate greed, to anti-democratic oppression and anti-communist purges, and shows how these grand factors had an impact on different individual citizen’s life.

The author himself described the book as a series of “revenge plays” and the story is indeed full of many characters who are wrong in often cruel and egregious ways and who find justice in an over-the-top, absurd manner.

Cheong Myeong-Kwan’s writing is funny and light while also deeply philosophical and sensual. The story often contains a twinge of wistful sadness and nostalgia that is far more common in Latin Boom literature but feels equally at home when mixed with the deeply Korean concept of Han, a feeling of deep sorrow that is often claimed to be an integral part of Korean identity.


By its very nature, a story contains adjustments and embellishments depending on the perspective of the person telling it, depending on the listener’s convenience, depending on the storyteller’s skills. Reader, you will believe what you want to believe.


This is the second translation of Whale into English, and this translation presents an engaging, fantastical story of memory and place in an era when society changed and evolved from slow traditional ways to the ever-increasing fast pace of modern life.

Patrick McShane is the Editor-in-Chief of the online literary journal Hwæl-Weġ.