The new book we will be covering in the next series of posts is a 2012 Korean novel by Minshik Jeon, The Man Who Walks Dogs (전민식의“개를 산책시키는 남자”), which can be purchased here:
It is a literary work that even won a world literature award, but as far as I know, it has no English language presence beyond a promotional description at particular booksellers. The plot sounds kind of cute, and I am interested in seeing how good it might actually be. Reading a true literary work in a second, third or fourth language is no easy task since plots can be too subtle or non-existent for readers to pick up on, and the writing can be too complex. Vivid language and good plotting of genre fiction is usually better for foreign language students, but since I like the general story for this one, I’m willing to give it a try.
The title literally means “The Man Who Is Made to Walk Dogs,” but that is too clunky in English even if it is more accurate. So “The Man Who Walks Dogs” is probably the best English title you could come up with for it. The general plot description is as follows: a man is blackballed after getting fired from his corporate job when he accidentally gets entangled with a female spy, so he is forced to take jobs walking dogs. The story is told in the first person.
The novel’s first chapter, the title of which I ripped for the title of this post, starts with our so far unnamed protagonist walking his group of five dogs. The first line of the novel is really rather strong: “닥스훈트가 가로등 밑둥치에다 오줌을 찔끔 지렸다.” This translates roughly to “The dachshund nervously peed on the lamppost’s base.” Only one of the five dogs is female, and the breeds are mixed but mainly small and medium-sized dogs: papillon, pug, American cocker spaniel, dachshund, white schnauzer. It is a world of dog doo and urine, keeping male and female dogs from getting too friendly with one another, and keeping track of their owners.
As he is out walking the dogs in the park, he encounters a woman in shorts who happens to be the very corporate spy who caused him to lose his job, a woman named Jinju. She comes over to talk and pets the dogs. He discusses her in very unflattering terms even as he describes her beauty and personality, comparing her to Mata Hari, whom Jinju herself also references on her business home page. Here is the background on Mata Hari, dancer, courtesan and spy from World War I:
He makes up three rules for dog-walking for himself, the first one of which immediately is broken as the pug and papillon begin mating in the park, and he seems to be unable to control them. The reader gets the impression he’s a bit clueless since it would have obviously been better to walk the dogs of each sex separately to absolutely avoid these sorts of problems. Perhaps it is no surprise he fell for a corporate spy, but we shall see how that situation transpired as the book progresses. Here is some background on the main culprit here, however, the papillon:
An old man who is walking in the park notices his problem and suggests he throw water on the dogs. Other observers in the park get a policeman after him, and he is fined 30,000 won for “corrupting public morals”! He quickly figures out how his part-time salary can meet this demand since he makes about 8,000 won an hour, which he considers quite a good part-time job at that rate. This section about the confrontation with the policeman is rather lengthy, but the narrator is mostly an uncomfortable bystander.
This old man butts in and very vocally defends the narrator against the charge. His ranting at the police includes noting that these were dogs and not humans, so there was no corruption of public morals, and who does the policeman fine when the park birds do the same? He also berates a married woman walking in the park with her children whom he thinks reported the dog-walking narrator. This accusation got me wondering, though. Is the old man right about who made the complaint? Perhaps that detail slipped by me, but what about the too pleasant meeting of the narrator with the Mata Hari-admiring spy who got him fired? Although the details of his situation with her have not been explained yet, could Jinju have made the complaint to get him into more, unnecessary trouble? It’s an intriguing thought, and I’ll be interested to see how the story develops. The matter is finally settled with the narrator paying the fine and leaving, though not before the old man nearly gets dragged away by two officers and his pack of dogs rip up the policeman’s pant leg.
He walks further with the dogs, who lead him to a place where he admires a mansion in the distance. It seems to be in a more secluded location, and the description of the area here is quite nice. He thinks there’s a dog in that house beyond its iron gate though he doesn’t see one. The silhouette of a woman on the third floor curtained window catches his eye, and he watches it for a while. The mansion is dazzling in the sunlight. Then he decides to move on so he won’t be late.
The scene changes again to a completely different situation, and this seems like a nice, quiet place to stop until next time.
On a language note, I found it kind of interesting to see the narrator call the dogs “녀석“ and “놈들,” both of which mean something like “guys.” He’s saying something like “taking the guys out for a walk,” which sounds a little cute and funny in English. For my native Korean speakers out there, is this a typical way of referring to animals, or is this something that the narrator is using in a special way?
Part one of a four-part series.