If this year’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novel, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, has whetted your appetite for Korean literature, we recommend that you check out Hwang Jungeun’s One Hundred Shadows, an oblique, hard-edged novel forthcoming from Tilted Axis Press. Set in a slum’s rundown electronics market, One Hundred Shadows depicts the little-known underside of Seoul, complicating the shiny, ultra-modern face which South Korea presents to the world. Here is an excerpt.
I said goodbye to Mujae at the subway station, where we each took different trains. By the time I got back to the area where I lived it was noon and the sun was blazing down as I dragged myself down the street. My stumpy shadow slanted to the right, bulging like a soft-boiled egg, its movements mimicking my own. When I thought about how it had risen now and then, the familiar shops and familiar alley didn’t look familiar at all. I turned into the alley and heard the sound of television leaking out of a window. It sounded like a volleyball match, with a voice saying spike, very clearly enunciated, sounding more electronic than human. Spike, spike, spike, and I turned another corner. Fancy hearing a voice saying spike, I thought, then put my hands in my pocket, unable to recall what had come after. A sharp piece of paper pricked my finger. I pulled it out and saw that it was the wrapper from Mujae’s gum. I bent it with my thumb, and it rustled like a shriveled ear.
I took down the pizza and fried chicken flyers that had been stuck to the door and stepped into the house. Inside it was dark, and seemed exactly how I’d left it even though I’d been gone a whole day. I took off my clothes, which smelled of soil, and went into the bathroom. I positioned myself beneath the naked bulb that dangled from the high ceiling, and looked down at my shadow. It looks a little bigger, I thought, and more thinned-out. I lifted my left foot up for a moment, then set it back down. I raised my right foot this time, put it down and lifted my left once more, then jumped up lightly so both feet were off the ground. The shadow spread out, a little thinner and wider, and definitely touched my feet when I put them down on the floor. I did a couple of jumps in my bare feet, examined the light bulb, then turned on the hot water and washed my hair. Wiping the suds from my eyes, I thought to myself that even if my shadow had drawn me deep in the woods, so deep that I never returned, someone would still have stuck flyers on the door, and pizzas would still have been sold. I went back into the main room, lay down and pulled a blanket over myself. The weather was sultry, but my toes were cold. I wondered if this was because I had my feet pointing north, and shifted them a little to the east, my head a little to the west. But this didn’t feel comfortable so I kept on shifting, again and again. I moved around so much I ended up back in my original position, but something still wasn’t right. I felt as if my lower back had lifted up off the floor, the whole of me trembling like a compass needle. Falling in and out of sleep, haphazard thoughts flitted through my mind.
I worked at an electronics market, a ramshackle warren of tiny shops close to the heart of the city. The market had originally consisted of five separate buildings, labelled A, B, C, D and E, but had been altered and added to over a period of forty years so that it was now a single structure. You had to know where to look to spot the signs that it had ever been otherwise. The market was where I first met Mujae. I manned the customer desk and ran errands at Mr. Yeo’s repair shop, while Mujae was an apprentice at a transformer workshop. One day I went down there with an old transformer that needed its copper wire replaced. There in that cramped space was Mujae, wearing wrist guards and an apron. Next to him, Mr. Gong was spinning the wheel with the copper wire twined around it. I held out the old transformer, needing both hands to lift its weight. Mujae took it casually in one, put it down on the table among all the copper wires, and made a note of the shop’s name and phone number. The only remarkable thing about him was his beautiful handwriting. I’d seen him several times before, on my way in and out of the building or running errands to other workshops, but nothing had made those encounters stand out.
I nodded off, wondering whether I would see Mujae at work on Monday, since we said, See you on Monday? When I started awake, the sun was about to go down. The light of the setting sun filled the room. I realised that I’d left my packed lunch in the woods.
My shadow rose, I said, and Mr. Yeo blinked.
He was sitting on a stool, holding a probe connected to an oscilloscope. He furrowed his brow under his salt-and-pepper hair, blinked once, then twice, and asked,
So what did you do?
I followed it.
You followed it?
Just a little way.
You shouldn’t have followed it.
I’m not going to any more.
That’s right, Mr. Yeo said, touching the probe to the circuit board and peering at the screen. The green line that had been streaming across the palm-sized monitor morphed into an undulating wave.
Those shadows, Mr. Yeo said, then stared intently at the monitor for some time. Whenever I assumed his thoughts had drifted he would reposition the probe, and when I thought he was engrossed in his task he suddenly came out with, those shadows, you know. After a while more of this abstraction he finally looked up at me.
So how did you feel, when you were following the shadow?
Pretty good, I said. I couldn’t help but follow it. Mr. Yeo nodded as if to say yes, that’s how it is.
That’s what’s scary, you feel light somehow, carefree, if you surrender to the shadow’s pulling at you, so you keep on following it, and that’s when it strikes. People turn slow-witted when they’re in that kind of daze, so it attacks when your wits are slowest of all, he said, and gently set the probe down on the worktable. Wait and see, it’ll start growing now.
And then what happens?
It becomes denser. Gravity, or something.
Don’t worry too much. They say you can survive as long as you keep your eyes peeled, even if you’re captured by a fox.
Isn’t it a tiger?
What do you mean, a tiger?
The saying is that you can survive as long as you keep your eyes peeled, even if you’re captured by a tiger.
A tiger, a fox, it’s all the same, Mr. Yeo said, pushing a lamp with a tin hemisphere shade right up against the board. What I’m saying is, you need to keep your eyes peeled when what’s in front of you has teeth.
So when my shadow rose, Mr. Yeo said.
By that time he had polished off the last of the shaved ice, which had melted into a pinkish puddle, fixed an amp that someone had brought in and sent it back to them.
It rose? I repeated, startled.
Mm, that’s right. Mr. Yeo glanced over at me, nonchalant. My life hasn’t exactly been plain sailing, so it was inevitable really—no big deal. I was at my front door when it happened, just putting on my shoes. I thought to myself, this is what you’ve been dreading, now it’s finally happened, and I thought of my friend, the one I told you about, Eungyo. As I watched the shadow rise, it occurred to me that whoever made up the saying about your hair standing on end must have witnessed something like this. There was nothing I could do—I mean, it was a shadow. Once it had risen I could feel it pulling at me, and who knows what would’ve happened if I hadn’t stood my ground? But I was more concerned by my family’s odd reaction. The shadow didn’t go far, just roamed around the house, and I wasn’t sure whether my family genuinely couldn’t see it, or whether they were simply pretending. This shadow would sit among us at meal times, you see. And my wife and kids never batted an eyelid, but at the same time they managed to avoid sitting near it, or touching it in any way. Whenever they passed each other one of the side dishes or a second helping of rice their arms never went too close to my shadow, and they even angled their heads slightly to the side so they could see each other round the shadow.
But shadows are visible, aren’t they?
Of course they are. They were just pretending not to see what was clearly there, even when I pointed right at it and said, My shadow, that’s my shadow. Like this, Mr. Yeo said, and put his left thumb and forefinger together, as though to pinch the air. They’d just frown a little and glare as if they couldn’t stand the sight of me. In a situation like that, wouldn’t it be natural for me to think that they didn’t care about me, that as far as they were concerned, I could follow my shadow and good riddance too? So then I started thinking, well, damn it, what’s stopping me?
So you followed it?
Yes, but it wasn’t easy. Because you’ve got your voice following too.
That’s right, whispering in your ear the whole time: you mustn’t, you mustn’t. So anyway, I ended up turning back before I’d even gone ten miles. It was pathetic. I mean, what kind of idiot can’t even follow their own shadow? I called myself all kinds of names. That night, the moon was so full and bright you could see its craters.
Mr. Yeo heaved a long sigh. I pictured him trudging wearily home with his shadow tacking along in his wake and the moon hanging bright in the night sky, its craters clearly defined.
It does still rise from time to time, but I tell myself it’s no big deal. I can bear it as long as I tell myself that. It’s not really true that it’s no big deal, but the more I tell myself that it is the easier it becomes to believe it, and with time you really do end up convincing yourself. After all, shadows might rise, but they can also fall, can’t they? It’s risky, I know. Right now I can tell myself that it’s no big deal, but there’ll be a day when that doesn’t work anymore, when it categorically is a big deal, and that’ll be the end, Eungyo. My shadow will pull me after it, somewhere infinitely far away.
Mr. Yeo got a screwdriver out of a drawer and began to fiddle with the shell of the amp.
Translated from the Korean by Jung Yewon
Click here for more information about the book.
Hwang Jungeun (b. 1976) is one of the bright young things of Korean literature, having published two collections of short stories and three novels to date. One Hundred Shadows (2010), her first novel, was both a critical and commercial success; its mix of oblique fantasy, hard-edge social critique, and offbeat romance garnered the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award and the Korean Booksellers’ Award.
Jung Yewon is the translator of One Hundred Shadows, by Hwang Jung-eun. She is also the translator of No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin and one of the co-translators of A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories by Jung Young Moon, both published by Dalkey Archive as part of their Library of Korean Literature series. Her translation of Jung Young Moon’s Vaseline Buddha is published by Deep Vellum.
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