This time we finish up our look at Korean novel, The Man Who Walks Dogs (전민식의“개를 산책시키는 남자”) by Minshik Jeon. I have to admit I’m in shock after finishing the novel and feel my post title is really not appropriate for what ultimately happens, but it is inspired by one of the chapter titles. I’m not even sure how I want to characterize the book now. The foreshadowing I had been noticing and mentioning was correct, though for a while in this section the story seems to take quite a different route, giving the reader a bit of a head fake that this will be a happy ending. In this section, the plot is mostly slice of life and meanders quite a bit with Dorang getting philosophical about his life and reminiscing quite often. There is, however, another unsettling reference to the Strange Fruit song, this time with explicit mention of the Billie Holliday version. This portion of the novel is also interrupted by increasingly sinister events in Dorang’s life.
Once Dorang finishes up his job assisting Samson and the student, he accepts Director Mongmong’s most recent offer to walk a new dog, a Tibetan Mastiff named Rama.
Rama’s owner is from the very house that Dorang was observing near the end of the first chapter, a mansion with a house manager that is referred to as “the gingko house.” Rama is a huge dog nearly as big as Dorang, and when he takes him back home after a walk, Dorang sees the woman in the window again.
This general arc of the novel’s minimal storyline is interrupted in chapter 5 when Dorang gets a call from his older brother from overseas. His brother is at a construction site for a power plant, which was also the type of setting where their deceased brother died. For some reason his brother mentions his desire to trek through the desert from Algeria to the Sudan, which puzzles Dorang. However, Dorang realizes that this goal would bring up the possibility that his brother would cross paths with Jinju. I have read some about Korean migrant construction workers in the region, probably most recently in Dubai, but here is some background for their conversation:
Dorang visits Samson, who is often shown reading in his office, and they talk about Dorang’s dead brother and Dorang’s relationship with Mihyang briefly. Once again, Samson launches into a spiritual discussion about Pythagorean philosophy, the soul, reincarnation, even cremation. It’s pretty deep stuff, and I had no idea Pythagoras even had a philosophy. While I’m still unclear on exactly what Dorang’s connection to Samson is, he is a mentor and a bit of a spiritual guru to him. He seems to keep Dorang working on odd jobs when nothing else comes up.
Once when Dorang takes Rama out, they run into some people who get too close to Rama. Rama growls at them, and Dorang thinks back to the incident with the Yorkshire Terrier’s death for a moment, but this situation passes without incident. When he takes Rama back home, the house manager questions him about this and wants him to change his route. Dorang wonders if he’s under surveillance. Later, the house manager asks him to take Rama to the pet hospital to get his vaccinations. Dorang isn’t happy with their request, but no one else is available. I think there is some concern that Rama will hate whoever takes him to get his shots, so they want to shove the task off on Dorang. The scene at the pet hospital with Director Mongmong is rather cute, and contrary to expectations, Rama even licks Dorang’s face afterward.
The next time Dorang goes to see Samson, there is a car accident at the convenience store where they are walking. The son of some section chief runs his car directly at them and injures Dorang’s ankle to the point he can’t do his dog-walking job. The boy’s father kneels at the foot of Dorang’s hospital bed and begs to make amends. Dorang talks with Director Mongmong about how to handle the situation with Rama since he’s hurt, and it comes out that Dorang may have feelings for Rama’s owner, whose name I think is Mira. The gingko house’s manager comes to visit him, tells him to get well soon, that Rama is waiting, and gives him a nice bonus. She leaves promising to bring Rama to visit him.
Chapter 7 starts with Dorang in his new consulting office. At this point, he is trying to start a dog-walking business and is reading up at the library on raising capital and on dogs in general because the business is relying entirely on his job attending to Rama, and he knows he needs to develop it. He won’t ask Samson for help but needs a wealthy sponsor. His residency issues are somehow taken care of by Director Mongmong, though I am unclear on what this actually means. There is no more mention of his recovery from his injury or how this new situation came about exactly, and the next scene has him briefly involved along with Samson with more delinquent high school students, including the one who hit him with the car. Samson then takes Dorang to a traditional-style Korean house where they drink and talk with a group of Samson’s friends about everything from the latest smartphone to death, Samson’s favorite topic to ruminate on. Later, he and Dorang return to this house for a birthday party and more conversation about Jinju, Eunju and other topics.
At this point, the novel doesn’t have a strong plot progression, but we still can see some recurring themes, many of them quite negative. Eunju Li is having more problems in the background, such as getting in an accident and having a gun delivered to her. Mihyang is friendly with Dorang, and he sets her up on a date at a karaoke bar with Director Mongmong, but he keeps forgetting to meet her and is often unable to make plans when she texts him about doing something. CCTV surveillance comes up a few times more in passing, and Dorang has more and more alarming encounters with the police, who investigate his injury when hit by a car, and Dorang and Samson are interrogated by detectives at the police station over the gun delivery to Eunju. Of course, Samson’s constant discussion about death doesn’t help lighten the mood.
The milonga comes up again, too, when Director Mongmong invites Dorang to meet him at another one to discuss Rama, though they actually talk about how Dorang’s troubles seem to have ended. It also comes out there much more explicitly that Dorang is fascinated with Rama’s owner Mira, and he asks Director Mongmong if he thinks she is beautiful. Earlier when this came up, the word the text used was something more like Dorang was “anxious” about her. Here it’s much more open and is clearly romantic interest. There’s also a big rivalry for Mihyang that comes out here between Samson and Director Mongmong, with Mongmong losing out with the woman he loves. It’s very sudden and bizarre given how close this intrusion comes to sounding like the last scuffle at the milonga scene right before Dorang gets fired from his restaurant job. But it makes this scene pivotal and structurally parallel to the last milonga scene over the rivalries for Mihyang, and it threatens to break up Dorang’s social circle. I’m not sure what the big deal is over Mihyang or if this is just like too many anime I’ve seen where every guy wants one girl who is the most boring woman on earth. The ending, however, just might make sense of it if my interpretation of what is going on is correct.
Overall, though, this part of the book shows Dorang in a more supportive circle of friends, such as Samson, Mihyang, Director Mongmong and Rama’s home staff. We hear more about his dead parents and dead brother, too. Otherwise, the thread that holds the novel together here seems to be Dorang walking Rama in all types of weather as the seasons change, with Rama wearing shoes in one episode and needing a bath after walking in a heavy rain in another. Clearly, Rama has provided a stabilizing influence on him that has influenced all of his plans and relationships. He talks a bit in places how unbreakable the trust is between him and Rama. Perhaps this is colored by his infatuation with Mira.
His life doesn’t stay tranquil for long, however. During this second milonga scene, Dorang gets a call from the Indian company about his brother who died, and there are a lot of details about the body being sent back to Korea intertwined with the most important scene of him walking Rama. This is, as far as the reader has been told, his last living relative. We already have seen his supporters crumbling through no particular action of his own, as in the strange fight scene between Samson and Director Mongmong over Mihyang. Now we discover that Dorang forgot one rule for walking Rama: he wasn’t supposed to let anyone pet him, yet he does on many occasions. As he is distractedly sitting on a bench with Rama tied beside him, thinking about this coffin coming to him and reading his dead brother’s notebook, a child pets Rama, and Rama disappears. This sets off one of the strangest progressions of the novel so far.
Dorang calls Samson when Rama goes missing after looking everywhere. The ginko house staff come to help in the search, and Rama’s owner Mira talks to Dorang in the coldest, most demeaning tones. One of the staff finds Rama, however, and Rama has an injured, bloody paw. Dorang hugs Rama, relieved. But in the next scene a few days later, two detectives come to his office to talk with him about Rama’s disappearance, which startles Dorang since the dog was supposedly found. The investigation is for theft of the dog, and their discussion doesn’t really answer Dorang’s questions about why they keep asking him where the dog is. They warn him if the dog dies there will be serious consequences since the family said he was the only one who could have done anything to Rama.
The next, final scene of the novel is even more of a shock. It gets rather confusing in its progression, but Dorang is clearly in a prison cell with a uniformed guard at the door. He lets Mihyang and Director Mongmong in to see him, and everyone apologizes about what happened. Director Mongmong mentions that Mira got married, and he confirms that Rama is dead. The scene skips around, but the very ending is as creepy as all get out. Suddenly Dorang sees Mihyang in the car with Samson, crying. Dorang thinks about dogs or hallucinates them or something, but then he is sure he sees a dog that looks just like Rama in the car as it drives away. The last sentence of the novel, in a nice framing device sort of way along with the first line of the novel referencing the dogs, is this: “녀석은 분명 라마였다.” This translates to “The dog was clearly Rama.” Just wow.
My thoughts on the meaning of this whole novel right off the top are that Dorang was someone’s patsy. It’s all some sort of set up, and the group around him were probably involved in organized crime. This was not just some normal string of misfortunes or bad luck, it’s not merely just because he’s homeless and unemployed. There were plenty of moments where the conversation and configuration of characters would definitely point to this idea. One thing I noticed from the beginning was that Samson and Mongmong don’t have Korean names, but I don’t recall there being any explanation of why that is. That’s one curiosity. Another is that Dorang’s first impression of Mihyang being like Jinju may actually have been an accurate judgment of the girl. This whole Samson, Mongmong and Mihyang triangle feels really fake to me, like a setup that they can’t really even seem to keep straight at the end. The fact that Samson was the one who calls Dorang about the gun delivered to Eunju and that the gun was a particularly difficult one to get in Korea apparently also looks suspicious. Dorang having someone try to run him down with a car while with Samson is another point.
Now, my question last time was whether Dorang was an unreliable narrator, and how does this now play into the ugly place where the story ultimately goes and the contradictions within it? My answer to that now that I’ve finished the novel is that he was unreliable to some degree where Jinju was concerned. It’s not unusual for guys who have a bad experience with women to be like that and react the way he did, but I also think that people have intuition. Someone with a good internal warning system for danger might also have some of those kinds of interpretations even if they don’t understand them or follow them. So on one level, Dorang did accurately read the situation even if it wasn’t actually Jinju who was around. He does have other people around him like Jinju who will do him harm whom he is trusting when he shouldn’t.
I definitely will agree this author deserved the literary award. It doesn’t seem like much as you’re reading, but the ending makes it all fit into place and paints one really dastardly picture.
It’s a good thing our first three books of the year were pretty positive, because this cycle we’re going darker and darker. So brace yourself for the next post with our new novel.
Part four of a four part series.
Next time: We return to modern China with Mo Yan’s controversial, Nobel Prize winning novel, Frog.