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“Drifting House” by Krys Lee: nine Korean stories

Drifting House, Krys LeeConsidered together, the nine stories included in Krys Lee’s Drifting House (faber&faber, 2012) offer a wide panorama on the lives and times of both North and South Korean people, from post-war era to the present time. It is often a dark panorama, marked by war, political separation, oppressive regimes, financial crises and subsequent diasporas to America. Yet, the hopes of change arisen with the democratization movement in South Korea brighten up the scenario. The way all these events affect relationships within families is what interests Lee.

With the exception of the title story, which takes place in North Korea, all the others are set in South Korea — mainly in Seoul — or among immigrants in American Koreatowns. Some follow their characters in their wandering back and forth between the two continents.
Like her stories, the author’s biography spans East Asia and America. Born in Seoul and raised in America, Krys Lee now lives between Seoul and San Francisco. Besides writing (Drifting House is her debut work, her first novel is due out next year), she works as an activist with North Korean refugees in Seoul. On one occasion she was even actively involved in smuggling a North Korean defector from China into South Korea.

This experience is possibly echoed in Drifting House, which takes place in a mining region of North Korea during the 1990s famine. It is a story of horrors right from the start: three siblings set out from their village to find their mother, who, made desperate by hunger, has fled to China, leaving them in the care of her oldest son, Wencheol. As they leave the village, the children go past placards of the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, past two people haggling for ‘a frozen flank of beef? Pork? Or human? No one knew any more’, past the public square where the month before two men were hanged for cannibalizing their parents. A long journey lies ahead of them, an exhausting trek in the snow across mountains and forests, then down to the river Tumen, the frozen border with China that can be crossed on foot in winter. While walking, they chant anti-American slogans to keep fear at bay.

The Dear Leader’s slogans cannot reassure them though, because their mother has abandoned them and the world is upside down: «Hunger changed people, destroyed the strongest bonds between parents and children and young and old». So Wencheol strangles Guhkwa, his crippled sister, too weak to survive the journey and a burden to her brothers. He decides to sacrifice her in order to find his mother, but is unable to live with this absurd exchange. The forest turns into a horror landscape: his dead sister is everywhere, barring the way to China. Wencheol realizes that he has to stay in North Korea, with his dead father and sister. He belongs to the dead: they are alive to him, while the border guards who now surround him are «shadows».

Though all that used to be sacred no longer holds true, families fall apart and people are led to inhumane actions and self-destruction, Wencheol imagines his family house still intact, drifting with him in the river. In a similar way, the protagonists of the stories set in America, unable to come to terms with the dissolution of their world in Korea, remain trapped in their memories, adrift between Korea and America, the present and the past. They are strangers in their new country and even to their "American" children. Sometimes the consequences of this life-in-between are devastating, as shown in a few stories that include all the elements of pulp fiction. In A Temporary Marriage and The Believer the wounds caused by family separation and solitude in hostile, incomprehensible America, cannot be healed. They are so deep that lead to despair, insanity, even gruesome murder and incest. As in the case of The Pastor’s Son, it can be hard for the reader to fully comprehend such desperation. How can a pastor, though haunted by his experiences in the Korean War and the loss of his family trapped in North Korea, drink non-stop, beat up his wife and son and finally commit suicide? Lee tries to explain it with an image of violence: the meat market in Seoul. Years after his father’s death, the pastor’s son visits the market and is hit by its brutality. Looking at the stalls of pig’s heads «leaking blood from the mouths and necks», at «men staggering into the dark, seeking brawls and seeking love», he recognizes the violence his father grew up with. He also feels what the pastor «must have always carried with him: the terrible war, its long-ago shadow that cast far beyond and drew you in like a thirsty curse».

While this first group of stories, mainly set among immigrants in America, look back on a past of war and loss, the stories set in Seoul focus more on the present. Lee is very skilled in outlining South Korea’s recent history as backdrop of her narratives, as well as in presenting the hierarchic structure of Korean society, where the younger obeys the elder and women are subject to men. From the 1970s onwards, however, this society is described as in constant transformation and open to changes.

Two of the Seoul stories, The Salaryman and The Goose Father, present the reader with men suffering in their role of only wage earners in the family. What happens if, in the middle of the 1997 IMF crisis, a man loses his job? The Salaryman loses his wife and children along with it, as his wife divorces him to protect house and savings from creditors. «Odd» — he remarks — «how a man loses value overnight without a salary». From a “salaryman” he turns into a homeless drunkard, who has to fight for survival in an impoverished Seoul. The fight for survival and the drinking, however, were already part of his everyday life as an employee in a big corporation. Now, with all the misery of failure and solitude, he can at least enjoy a new freedom. Reduced to a salaryman all his life, he discovers himself as a human being, who wants to live.

The possibility of living freely, of being oneself in a rigid society is what Eunkang, the protagonist of A Small Sorrow, is after. With her husband, a painter like her, she participated in the protests for democratization of South Korea throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. Now that the time of fighting is over and the people have accepted a «new compromised democracy», she realizes that she, too, has accepted a compromise in her private life. She wanted to be a «liberated woman» but has lived quietly, as expected of submissive Korean women. Even her paintings fail to convey the energy she wishes to express and are described by critics as «feminine miniatures». When she meets her husband’s new lover, the young painter Mina Lee, she is impressed by the girl’s energy and independence. Like Mina, she too decides to leave her traditional country house and go back to Seoul, to «find out what other kind of life she can live in the city».

Krys LeeTo the new, uncompromising generation of Korean women is dedicated the last story, Beautiful Women. The story of Mina Lee and her friend Hana — growing up in the Seoul of the 1970s — is the happiest and lightest of the nine. Despite the pepper gas and the jailing of students and activists, there is a breath of youth and freedom in it. Mina and Hana grow into strong and independent women, different from their saddened mothers.

The main pleasure of reading this book is in the way history, traditions and the lives of individuals are interwoven, mutually explaining each other. This is, however, more evident in the best stories of the collection, written in a language which is at times witty and allusive. An extra pleasure for me are the numerous descriptions of street food and Seoul’s food markets, not so dissimilar from those of my hometown, Palermo.

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