As we continue our look at Korean novel, The Man Who Walks Dogs (전민식의“개를 산책시키는 남자”) by Minshik Jeon, this time I will highlight problems of cultural communication that come up in this segment. One thing I didn’t mention last time is that another pitfall in reading officially literary works is that they can be quite rough in content and can be controversial. All of that is true to some degree with this book so far.
Our narrator continues his series of misfortunes, which get even more absurd than the park scene. Returning to his apartment and having a meal of soju and ramen while pondering his room full of inspirational quotes from famous people pasted on the walls, he is annoyed by the noise coming from his neighbor’s apartment at that late hour. Someone new has moved in who has no regard for the rest of the tenants. He tries banging on the wall, but the noise doesn’t stop. In a fit of anger, hoping to get his neighbor fined for being so loud, he goes out and bangs on their door. A woman in a bra and panties opens the door and hits him just as the building manager comes around. The manager takes him into his office and demands that he leave the next morning; he is being accused of sexual assault against the woman, his complaint about the noise disregarded. He kneels on the floor, begging to stay, but ultimately he is forced to leave with only two bags of his belongings.
In the next scene, he’s washing dishes at a restaurant, which is his other part-time job. During this sequence, there is a passing reference to Jinju causing his involvement in a huge lawsuit and how his life was a year before he was fired and went bankrupt, but there isn’t much detail about that situation yet. All we know about Jinju so far is that he was mesmerized by her and that she totally destroyed his life. After this brief thought, he takes a smoke break with the other workers. When they return, the manager brings them their pay and reveals he has been monitoring them on CCTV! Each worker has their own screen showing their behavior. The staff is floored. Here we find out the main character’s name is Dorang Im, and the CCTV monitor shows he is not working up to the manager’s standards, so the manager cuts his pay for the day by 6,000 won. He isn’t making too much money between this job and his dog-walking job, and he yearns for the food the restaurant patrons are eating, as well as for the attention of the beautiful young women.
Then Dorang goes to the subway station where the homeless live. This is now his new home. He looks through the garbage for newspapers to read. We find out that he had serious ambitions at his office job before he got fired, though I am not sure what the job title he aspired to actually means since it sounds pretty vague in English. We only get bits and pieces about his former life. But his life as a homeless person quickly gets pretty humiliating when a group of kids come to torment him while he’s sleeping. They harass him and steal his money from the restaurant that day before leaving him alone.
Dorang then takes the dogs out again, this time into a forest area near the park. He meets a woman there with a tiny Yorkshire Terrier, and the dachshund in his group of dogs mauls it to death. The woman is horrified and reports him to the police nearby. He is again fined 50,000 won. He is apparently fined about once a month for the dogs for various reasons. The dachshund’s owner arrives to question what went on. She doesn’t understand why these incidents keep happening, and she gives the dead dog’s owner another 5,000 won in cash. The dachshund owner takes off in her car with her dog.
Chapter two starts with Dorang talking with “the Samson woman” who appears to be fairly young. They are sitting by a piano of a certain design, and it references this well-known piano company, which is now owned by a Korean company ultimately under Samsung:
It may not be an important detail, though music is consistently popping up in the novel, but I thought it was interesting to point out since I think not many Westerners are aware of how some East Asian businesses are entwined with Western businesses. Generally, this novel has a lot of foreign words merely transliterated from English, such as this piano type and the dog breeds, and this is a much higher percentage than the other Korean novel I’ve covered. It’s not always immediately obvious what this type of vocabulary refers to because of Korean spelling and pronunciation, but so far so good.
This part of the novel appears to be a flashback to when he was working in his office, and the conversations are a little odd, at times even downright sinister, though I’m not sure if that will turn out to be incidental to the plot. The Samson woman talks to him about a wedding but also about the way that economic crises generally affect the average citizen badly. Then a man named Samson whom Dorang calls “president” talks with him, and the conversation turns to even more unsettling topics. Samson tells him that fraud and hypocrisy are the grease that keeps the world running and that the media gets no subscribers or ratings if they report good news. It’s in their best interest for there to be violence, sadness and tragedy. Then they talk about death and if Samson has any regrets about this reality he mentions. When they meet up with more of the office employees, this conversation about death is important enough to bring up to them. This whole discussion seems really odd, but it would be in keeping with one detail I noticed that left me puzzled and shocked.
While Dorang is washing dishes at his restaurant job, steamy thoughts of Jinju come up while he listens to music that reminds him of their time together. The thing is that the song that he’s listening to and singing along with is Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit”. I had to do a double take on that one, because that song references one of the ugliest chapters in American history, the lynching of predominantly black Americans in the post-Civil War era.
The narrator sings a verse, which sounds close enough if not exactly matching the original lyrics. I see nothing to suggest it is not this song being referenced, though a close comparison with the lyrics does make me wonder how they were translated into Korean. The part he sings is “남부의 나무에는 이상한 열매가 열린다네, 바람에 이리저리 흔들린다네,” which seems to be a mixture of the beginning and ending of the first verse of the song with all of the explicit historical references removed. It merely talks about “strange fruit” hanging from a tree in the south, blowing in the wind. The text doesn’t say if he was listening to the original in English or a cover in Korean, and it is possible that when the song was translated into Korean the meaning may have been changed considerably. Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate and keep both rhyming pattern and meaning, so it’s possible he’s not listening to the same lyrics. Here is what the original English lyrics say in that verse (courtesy of http://www.metrolyrics.com):
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
From an American perspective and given the historical meaning of the song, I expect Jinju to show up next time with horns and a pitchfork and for them to kill the narrator brutally at the end, but I didn’t think it was that kind of book. One the scale of 1 to 10 in intensity, this song would be like a 15. For readers who aren’t aware of the historical background of this song, here is an excellent article from the Heinz Endowment describing the 2001 exhibit at the Andy Warhol Museum “Without Sanctuary”:
This exhibit displayed trophy photos and postcards once openly sent through the US mail celebrating the murder of predominantly black men by vigilante mobs. Not many Americans today have seen this photographic evidence, this exhibit was only shown in a handful of US venues, and the author of this novel may not be that aware of it. I personally saw this exhibit, and it was beyond description, something that you cannot forget.
One thing I should note here about reading foreign literature, particularly modern, non-Western books, is that it can ruffle sensibilities due to different cultural contexts and considerable cultural gaps that can’t be completely eradicated with study. There will always be some amount of accidentally giving offense because you can’t and don’t know everything about the other culture. Some things can only be really understood growing up in the culture, like assumptions and subtle inferences. This is just the reality of cross cultural communication, and it should be understood that everyone in every culture does this to some extent when picking up free-floating aspects of cultures not their own.
So a certain amount of understanding and latitude needs to be given when looking at their writings. This will most likely become more important when we move on to the next book on my reading list for 2014, but it’s good to keep it in mind for all of them. East Asia isn’t the place to look for political correctness, and they have a completely different historical context, one that doesn’t have the sort of explosive difficulties with race or even the changing definitions of race, such as the Irish once being considered black, that we have had here for centuries.
So the question to ask here is what did the author really mean by this song reference here? Probably in the context of South Korea, perhaps it was just a way of showing the character liked cool music, maybe vague notions of having a social conscience depending on how the song was translated into Korean, and maybe some vague implication again that Jinju is a really nasty person. Other songs are referenced that he listens to in places in the text, and they seem a bit depressing but nothing of the bloody implications of this song. So maybe he’s just a big Billie Holliday fan, and this song is famous around the world for its quality.
Would I as an American author use that song to say those things in my own work? No. But if this novel were ever translated into English, one thing that could be done is find a song that is more suited to the meaning actually intended if the historical reference was not meant so that it is not misconstrued. If the Korean translation of the lyrics were actually not the same as the original English lyrics, it could remain in the text with a footnote explaining the difference to the readers. But so far, the unsettling conversation and events such as the dog mauling, could validate the author’s choice of this song if Dorang comes to a very bad end. It would only be in that situation I would recommend leaving the song reference there in translation.
If you’ve read much about the translation of foreign literature and methods translators use to do it, you know that fidelity to the original text is optional depending on what level of understanding you are trying to convey. There are lots of translation methods. This is one reason why I decided I didn’t want to only cover English language translations of books on this blog. You can get the totally wrong impression of a written work if you assume every translation is just exactly how the original is, and sometimes the first translation sets the tone as the “real” work.
But the story continues with this interesting juxtaposition of his restaurant job with the realities of Dorang living on the street. He is starving while he works but must watch the restaurant patrons spend a lot of money on their food. As he starts to work attending to the restroom in the imperial suite the restaurant has for special guests, he has to sleep in a sleeping bag and wash up in public restrooms.
Dorang also has a new woman in his life, Mihyang, a coworker who reminds him of Jinju and whom he considers a better woman to pursue. Her actions even remind him of Jinju’s spying on some superficial level. But so far they are just acquaintances. Perhaps he’s still a little too stung by Jinju’s betrayal to see this girl for who she really is.
Part two of a four-part series.