As we continue the novel we’re working on for this series, Suspicious Maids, by Jingyu Park (박진규의”수상한 식모들” ), I’m finding myself rather confused and wondering if we have wildly unreliable first person narrator. There were already signs even in the part I read for the first post, but the strangeness continues. Some of it may be the author’s style, which is rather disjointed at this point. One thing I wasn’t really expecting was that it’s turning into a teen angst story; I found myself really wishing the author would move on past the storyline with Kyeongho and get to the suspicious maids already. I haven’t gotten enough of them yet, but I am getting a similar vibe that I had with The Man Who Walked Dogs that things may not end well for this kid.
One thing I find fascinating so far is what the implications are for Kyeongho that he and his father have a fascination with this maid simulation game and Kyeongho with young maids generally when his mother was originally a maid in his father’s household prior to their marriage. Nothing has been said about that connection so far, but I wonder if it may come out at some point, especially given the sort of information that comes up in chapter 3.
The name that comes up regularly in chapter 3 is 호랑아낙, and I can’t quite wrap my head around the meaning. I think the author is doing some word play with it, so it has about three layers of meaning that seem to shift in the context of the chapter. One possibility is tiger’s lair. This meaning makes sense when we see his mythological explanation of the suspicious maids, which I’ll get to in a minute. Another possible meaning is cruel women, and that also has some interesting connections to the suspicious maids, although his ex-maid mother doesn’t seem to fit this definition that well. Finally, it could be meant as a cruel woman’s boudoir. The chapter title is slightly different in the text of the book versus the table of contents but seems to mean something like Cruel Women Or Suspicious Maids or The Tiger’s Lair and Suspicious Maids. The chapter has three subheadings and lots of breaks between its sections.
The first subheading is Entering. The first line is pretty interesting:
호랑아낙 또는 그를 이어간 수상한 식모들의 역사는 그 자체가 수상함은 물론 피와 단죄, 순교를 동반해은 기록이다. (p. 26)
The tiger’s lair and the living suspicious maids’ shady history has of course blood and condemnation with an accompanying record of martyrdom. (My translation)
He goes on to discuss how the suspicious maids’ history was unwritten and originally transmitted orally rather than any connection made by history scholars. The maids gather under a small bridge in Seoul in a shantytown occasionally. The women move together and are hard to identify. One tiger’s lair is situated on Mount Paekdu, which is an active volcano on the border between North Korea and China and one of the highest mountains.
Mt Paekdu’s Heaven Lake Crater, photo by BDPmax
A second tiger’s lair is identified as being on Hallasan, a shield volcano on Jeju Island that is considered the highest in South Korea.
Mount Hallasan, photo by Mass Ave 975
He says the maids hide kitchen knives and are quiet terrorists. The small number of resourceful maids received a certain sort of education. Then he moves on in the next section to discuss the role of tiger’s lairs (or does he mean cruel women?) in Korean society and history. Here he is fairly vague, but the general idea is that such maids were in the royal household, and the households of corrupt officials and cheeky yangban before middle class households inherited them. I guess some of this is what he’s reading in this notebook, and this part of the text is broken up into very short sections. Some of them are only a sentence or two. He launches into a discussion about corrupt officials and the suspicious maids in the context of various forms of torture and execution, black magic and Catholic martyrdom. This section is extremely lurid, and it doesn’t give detailed examples of the horrors it describes to really get a handle on what he means by these references.
The second titled subheading is the Tiger’s Lair Myth. Here he references the legend of Dangun, the founder of the first Korean kingdom of Gojoseon:
A tiger and a bear prayed to Hwanung that they might become human. Upon hearing their prayers, Hwanung gave them 20 cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort, ordering them to eat only this sacred food and remain out of the sunlight for 100 days. The tiger gave up after about twenty days and left the cave. However, the bear persevered and was transformed into a woman. The bear and the tiger are said to represent two tribes that sought the favor of the heavenly prince.
The bear-woman (Ungnyeo; 웅녀/熊女) was grateful and made offerings to Hwanung. However, she lacked a husband, and soon became sad and prayed beneath a “divine birch” tree (Hangul: 신단수; hanja: 神檀樹; RR: shindansu) to be blessed with a child. Hwanung, moved by her prayers, took her for his wife and soon she gave birth to a son named Dangun Wanggeom.
When the tiger couldn’t complete the competition, she became the founder of the suspicious maids. The tiger ends up getting injured, which the author describes for a long time in rather gruesome detail, and ten months later, a warm light like sunlight heals her body and turns her into a young human woman. When she descends the mountain dressed in skins, the humans call her tiger woman, and she teaches them the arts and medicine. She also brings abandoned little girls up to the mountain to raise as her foster daughters. But this is some kind of trap.
In another section, he discusses the hypothesis of the bear totem tribe and the tiger totem tribe who fought for control, and the tiger woman was expelled from the group for her disobedience after their tribe didn’t gain control. The suspicious maids’ seeds take root where there is a group of alienated, wandering women. It was during the colonial era under the Japanese that they were called tiger women.
The last subsection of this chapter is called The Suspicious Maids’ Concrete Chronicle, another section chopped up into very short segments, and it basically seems to return to the idea of the suspicious maids’ secret influence in Korean history, though they decreased and returned to their mountain lair to ride out Jeongjo’s reign during the prosperity of a part of the Joseon era. It does talk a bit more, though still vaguely, of the role of suspicious maids in the royal household in the Joseon era and connects them to the dethronement of Yeonsangun. The women were mainly domestic servants, merchants, acrobats. Later as the old social world disappeared and the modern one emerged, class changes also changed how the suspicious maids operated. The suspicious maids were in decline, but they were able to enter middle class houses with their sharp kitchen knives.
This chapter is kind of circular, and we’ll see this sort of organization of the text more as we continue our reading. It gives the topic in a general sense, moves on to something else, comes back to it to reiterate it in a different way with a few more details. The next chapter also does this when compared with chapter 2.
Chapter 4 makes me really wonder about the reliability of the narrator, especially when compared with chapter 1. In chapter 1, the impression that Kyeongho gives is that he has this terrible family life in the extreme and he has no girlfriend or intimacy. Here we are abruptly shown something quite different with no explanation, but maybe I missed it somewhere. He not only does end up with a girlfriend he is intimate with, she’s quite attractive and independent. He does talk a bit more about his hallucinations of mice and how it somehow is related to the suspicious maids, but that passes quickly. He blames his obesity on this too.
We hear more about his bad relationship with his older brother and Kyeongho’s bad eating habits, such as eating sugar out of the cupboard at night with rice. He’s rather addicted to sugar. Kyeongho and his mother are listless after having to move. While he’s considering the maids and his obesity, he suddenly hears from a friend named Seonjae Yoo on his cell phone.
This part brings up how Kyeongho is the target of school bullies, and they have put up a webpage showing he and Seongjae photoshopped on porn. His classmates saw him meet with Seonjae at a department store near Gangnam Station where they stopped at Burger King, and the students decided Kyeongho and Seonjae were boyfriend and girlfriend. Rumors about the couple spread through the school, and the webpage shows up. They get bombarded with anonymous emails, and they have no idea who it is that created this. They end up at her home where things get more serious. By the end of the chapter, they are formally a couple, and the webpage mysteriously disappears immediately afterward. I wonder if Seonjae will turn out to be a suspicious maid in the third sense of the meaning of the phrase tiger lair I discussed earlier.
In the midst of explaining these details, the story circles back to the whole history of his mother and her in-laws when she joined them to work as a maid. Apparently, her mother-in-law actually was very affectionate toward her at first, but as she had Kyeongho and his brothers, the mother-in-law grew colder. Nothing more is said about these sinister maids that are so intriguing, so we’ll have to keep reading to discover what role they have to play in Kyeongho’s drama.
Part two of a four part series.