A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories (Library of Korean Literature) Paperback – 19 Nov 2013
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I myself am not a literature type and any reading I did of Beckett and Kafka and the literature of the absurd was done many years ago and long forgotten. I read A Most Ambiguous Sunday simply because I'm very interested in the diverse range of contemporary Korean literature and am making my way through the recently published and very impressive Dalkey Archive Press Korean Literature in Translation series which includes this volume.
The book is a collection of short stories originally published in Korean in 2008. The English versions are the work of several translators, some of whom collaborated directly with the author, who is very interested in translation himself. (The bio at the end of the book makes it known that he has translated more than forty books from English into Korean.) The collection definitely hangs together, but the individual stories are far from all the same (even though they might seem to be to those who are not into his kind of writing). There are fourteen stories in all, filling almost 300 pages. That's a lot of material. My intention here is to say just enough about the individual pieces to give an idea of what's there and how it might be interesting.
Mrs. Brown - a home invasion changes a couple's lives. A "straight" story that seems not so much the lead-off for the collection as a warm-up, serving to ease the reader into the world of the writer and get used to the cadences of his voice.
Joy of Traveling - A couple heads off on a getaway trip, both vaguely disappointed that their bisexual friend K is not with them. They talk as they drive and consider such questions as how well speakers of Danish are able to understand each other.
Afternoon of the Faun - a couple go on a picnic in the woods with a mutual friend who is losing his memory and once had sex with the woman, despite them being cousins. Very sleepy.
A Way of Remembrance - the best story in the book. It's not so much different from the other stories as more intense, a kind of distillation of all the author's favorite themes and techniques. A man and woman story with all the stops pulled out.
Together with a chicken - a day (and night, with dreams) in the life of a man who has chickens on his mind.
At the Amusement Park - solitary musings at an abandoned amusement park
Animal Songs of Boredom and Fury - three stories that I would class as recluse literature. (Think Kamo no Chomei's Ten-Foot-Square Hut.) All three are good but I found the third one particularly moving. It's one of my favorites in the collection.
The End - a man and woman story, told fairly directly. Sad but ever so slightly sentimental.
Volume without Weight - the private thoughts and actions of an invalid father living, if you can call it that, with his son and daughter-in-law. A pathetic old man like one of the characters in Junichiro Tanizaki's late novels (as The Key and especially Dairy of a Mad Old Man) only worse - maybe beyond redemption but not beyond sympathy. My second favorite story after A Way of Remembrance.
Drifting - a mentally damaged street person trying to survive a cold night is taken to the police station, interrogated, evaluated, and, in a quiet way, taken care of by the cops. A pretty accessible story and probably the warmest in the collection.
Losing the Olfactory Sense - another night story like Drifting, only more adrift and way bleaker.
A Most Ambiguous Sunday - another man and woman story, grounded and gentle.
I should explain that what I am calling a man and woman story is one that revolves around the shared experience of a man and a woman, middle-aged or older, whether a couple in the physical sense or simply two people who are somehow attached to each other. The relationship, whatever exactly it may be, is presented in a very distinct way that suggests that the author is drawing on a personal archetype. (Another recurrent feature that could be placed in the same category is an attention to and even preoccupation with animals.)
The stories are all different but at the same time recognizably by the same author. (This goes even for Mrs. Brown, even though it stands at a distance from all the rest.) All the stories have a strong narrative presence and a strong sense of interiority, by which I mean, basically, that the reader experiences what is happening not directly but via the narrator's perceptions and thoughts as he perceives what he perceives and thinks and what he is thinking. But there's more to it than that.
One pronounced feature of this interiority is what I would call self-monitoring. The interior narrator not only expresses his thoughts but observes them as they happen and expresses thoughts about them which can potentially become the material for further thoughts.
Another, very distinctive, feature is the narrator's tendency to drift from a fully conscious into a still conscious but disconnected dreamlike state, a state whose technical name is hypnagogic. All people experience it. It basically means going into or coming out of the sleep state. It may be a common experience, but the author's ability to reproduce it naturally within his narrative is very striking.
Add to these befuddlement and defamiliarization and you have a pretty heady mix. In fact so heady that it's an achievement that the author keeps things under as much control as he does.
I know this book is not for everybody. In fact one of my main intentions in this review is to help people decide whether it is for them or not. But I recommend not deciding too soon. After completing my first read my reaction was essentially three stars - an interesting book but pretty out there. But as a day or two went by I noticed that I was still thinking about it and wondering if my initial reaction was not giving the book its full due. So I went to four stars. But I still didn't feel totally settled, and I extended my consideration to the world in which the book came about - the small, highly institutionalized, highly connection-based, highly normative Korean literary establishment - and decided that it was not only a good and a distinctive book but also a courageous and an important one. That brought it to five full stars for me.