Tag Archives: Korea

The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo

I have not reviewed a book in the older woman in fiction series for some months. I correct this here with a thriller from Korea, specifically put my way by Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

What I liked about The Old Woman with the Knife was the serious way it undermined common ideas about how older women should behave, and how they decline physically. Older women often say that they have become invisible, meaning that they are not noticed, do not stand out from other people. The main character exploits this in order to carry out her trade: contract killing.

This is the 57th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed.

The Old Woman with the Knife

Hornclaw is 65 and has managed to survive as a contract killer in Korea. We meet her on the subway, when she is very deliberately not standing out from the crowd.

…she is a model senior citizen, wholesome and refined and respectable. Rather than making a show of how deserving she is of a seat, she stands by the full senior section at the end of the car and doesn’t complain. Her clothing is appropriate for a middle-class senior citizen, perfectly aligned with the standard of old age: off-brand but decent clothes, down to her hat and shoes, purchased at Dongdaermun Market or on sale at a department store. Unlike some, she doesn’t bellow songs, her face ruddy with drink, taking up space with various kinds of sporting equipment. She exists like an extra in a movie, woven seamlessly into a scene, behaving as if she had always been there, a retiree thrilled to take care of her grandchildren in her golden years, living the rest of her days with a frugality baked into her bones. People stare at their phones, headphones in their ears, shrinking from and swaying with the unending wave of humanity, quickly forgetting an old person has entered their midst. They excise her from their consciousness as if she’s unimportant, recyclable. Or they never even saw her to begin with. (13)

Many older women readers will recognise the idea of being ‘like an extra in a movie’, being passed over or not seen to begin with. Perhaps it happens to men too.

She has bought her survival as a contract killer at the cost of loneliness, close only to her dog, Deadweight. She has lost everyone she cared for along the way. She began life in a poor family, was sent to live as an unpaid servant in a distant cousin‘s household and abandoned there by her family. She had to find her own way and was helped and then more or less adopted by the mysterious Ryu. It was Ryu who rescued her, taught her the trade of murder and set up a company in which she was the chief worker. Even after many decades it is his voice that she hears guiding her to remain unremarked in a crowd.

In the opening chapter Hornclaw kills a commuter. He was behaving in an obnoxious way towards a young female passenger on the subway. There is, I admit, a small satisfaction in such a man being despatched. On leaving the cloakroom where Hornclaw cleans her poisoned knife she nearly collides with the emergency service workers who are rushing to the scene. 

When completing a job in a busy place and turning the corner …
Didn’t I tell you to slow down or stick to the edges but to make a big loop? What if you bump into someone and drop something? You would be announcing, here’s all the evidence, to the whole world.
She can recall Ryu’s expression when he told her that as if it were yesterday, and so she will trace the most complicated route home possible. (20)

But as she had grown older things have changed. In the agency for whom she works a younger male colleague seems bent on ruining her reputation and her effectiveness. A small mistake takes her to the doctor at the clinic, and she develops affection for Dr Kang and his family. This weakness is exploited by her rival and there is a violent showdown.

While I loved the feminist and anti-ageist stance of the story, I also found myself disconcerted by the lack of questioning of the morality of extra-judicial or contract killing. Perhaps I am asking too much. It’s a fantasy after all. But I find it hard to read about such things as though the victims are merely extras in a film, or disposable characters in a video game.

Gu Byeong-mo

Gu Byeong-mo was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1976. She made her literary debut in 2009 when her novelWizard Bakery won the second Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction. Her 2015 short-story collection Geugeosi namaneun anigireul received the Today’s Writer Award and Hwang Sun-won New Writers’ Award. This is her third novel, and the first to be translated into the English language. [From the Canongate website]

The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo, first published in 2013, and in the English translation by Canongate in 2022. 281pp. The English version was translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

It seems that to be a vegetarian is a challenge. I remember in the 1970s in Coventry where I was teaching the children at lunchtime would ask why I had a special meal, and then try and catch me out because it appeared to them to be unbelievable that I chose never to eat meat. I bet you eat fish and chips. No. Smokey Bacon crisps? No. And on Christmas Day, what do you eat then? I bet you eat turkey! This was usually delivered with a triumphant ‘caught you’ kind of voice. But I haven’t eaten meat for nearly 40 years. Not even on Christmas Day. Then for me as now in Korea for the main character in this novel. When Yeong-hye announced she would no longer eat meat it was regarded as a social transgression. Several people thought that her behaviour must be corrected.

247 Veg cover

The Story

The story of Yeong-hye is told by three different people: her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister. Each one has a different view or need for her. Each one carries the point of view for a section.

The first section, called The Vegetarian, is narrated in the first person by Yeong-hye’s husband. He believes she is mediocre, malleable and no challenge to him. He married her on this basis, and her announcement that she will no longer eat meat brings unwanted changes to his life. He resents this for he sees her role only in terms of himself. In one of the most shocking episodes of the book the husband recounts, in a bloodless way, how Yeong-hye’s father strikes her twice and forces meat into her mouth, sparking her first psychotic episode. She cuts her wrist and is hospitalised. The husband makes no effort to intervene, does nothing to prevent the violence.

The brother-in-law is a video artist who becomes obsessed with painting her body with flowers. In the second section, Mongolian Mark, he moves from being a sympathetic person, the one who carried Yeong-hye to hospital, through a fixation upon her birth mark to painting flowers on her body and recording her movements. Finally he paints and records himself as well and the results are predictable and not a little erotic. But when they are discovered it is Yeong-hye who again goes to hospital.

Her sister, Kim In-hye, visits the hospital in the section called Flaming Trees. Kim In-hye feels guilt because she did not prevent violence towards her younger sister in childhood as well as in adulthood. Although her marriage has finished because of the painting the body episode, Kim In-hye cares for her sister. She pays for the treatment and she visits periodically. Now it seems that nothing can be done for her, Yeong-hye wishes to become a tree. She does not want this life, but another.

Themes

There is rage in this book, resistance and revolt against conformity. It is also about the body and its meaning in relationships and to the individual. Expressing oneself physically is only allowed in certain ways, and not eating meat, cutting oneself, wishing to become a tree, hiding out in the woods – these things cannot be accepted from Yeong-hye. It is her sister who witnesses the second shocking attempt, this one by the hospital staff, to force-feed Yeong-hye to save her life. She questions whether Yeong-hye’s wishes should not prevail, even if she dies.

Yeong-hye’s only explanation for her vegetarianism is that she had a dream and she pursues her dream to become a tree as the novel progresses. Her decision provokes others to act upon her and her body. The more she withdraws from the world the more she is imprisoned within it: in hospital wards, by strait jackets and drugs and even trussed like a bird for roasting to transport her away from the psychiatric hospital.

While we have three voices observing and commenting on Yeong-hye, her voice is rarely heard except in a small voice or an animalistic howl.

The writing

Here is the opening paragraph of the novel. The words are Yeong-hye’s husband’s. So much information, so little affection or admiration.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know. As she came up to the table where I was waiting, I couldn’t help notice her shoes – the plainest black shoes imaginable. And that walk of hers – neither fast nor slow, striding not mincing. (3).

Later the writing becomes quite sensual. Here are the brother-in-law’s observations when he has first painted her body with flowers.

This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her – rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life her body represented. The sunlight that came splintering through the wide window, dissolving into grains of sand, and the beauty of that body which though this was not visible to the eye, was also ceaselessly splintering … (85)

The final scenes are vivid, disturbing and haunting.

The translator, Deborah Smith, has done an excellent job.

247 mbi2016-logoShortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. It was an opportunity to read a book by a woman in translation. I have never read a book by a Korean author before.

 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang published by Portobello Books in 2015. 183pp

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

 

You will receive emails about future posts if you subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews