In Hye-young Pyun’s City of Ash and Red, an unnamed employee of a pesticide company attends a party where he crushes an interloping rat with a designer bag. The branch manager is impressed enough to offer the man a promotion via relocation to Country C. The island where he is meant to reside is built on an old landfill. Trash festers everywhere. But ubiquitous waste is the least of the man’s problems. He’s quarantined at an airport. There are rumors of an impending earthquake. His palms and arms are mottled with unexplained bruises. When he finally realizes he forgot to make arrangements for his dog’s care, he calls a colleague to investigate. The colleague reports that the man’s dog has been found dead, along with his ex-wife, both repeatedly stabbed. The protagonist believes himself to be innocent. We suspect otherwise.
Pyun’s novels speak to the state of alienation made familiar to much of the world by globalization.
Sora Kim-Russell’s new translation of Pyun’s novel is an important addition to Pyun’s English catalog. When Pyun debuted in 2000, her penchant for fantastic and grotesque imagery signaled an assured departure from the more understated, interior, and semi-autobiographical style that was the norm among South Korean writers of the 1990s. The surrealism of Pyun’s early fiction invited comparisons to Haruki Murakami. Critics called her work “Hard-boiled Hell” or “Hard-gore Wonderland” (playing on the Japanese author’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), but City of Ash and Red is more devoutly stark and in tune with the pangs of urban alienation. Pyun was born in 1972, just as South Korea was experiencing its industrial boom. Growing up in the outskirts of Seoul, she watched construction projects pave over fields of baby’s breath. “There’s little difference between scenes of new development and a ruin,” she told Writer’s World. Instead of seeing a future utopia in a building site, she senses the stirring of a violent breakdown underway.
From her early works, Pyun liked to anonymize her protagonists—referring to them by pronouns (like Kafka’s “K.”), or professional roles (“the manager” or “the underling”). In City of Ash and Red too, nameless characters move through deracinated, industrialized spaces evocative of the urban sprawl and anonymized office spaces generated by the world of global capital. For readers outside of Korea, her avoidance of identitarian and geopolitical markers, of familiar signs of personhood or place, may be jarring, even frustrating. Yet this quality appears calculated to more effectively vie for global contemporaneity. Intended or not, it subverts the expectation of the Global Lit publishing machine that seeks to cash in by giving readers what it thinks they want: a localized, feminized, and charmingly particularized non-West. By the same stroke, Pyun offers her work to an international audience on her own terms, by speaking directly to the state of alienation made familiar to much of the world by globalization.
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While the history of modern Korean literature in translation spans several decades, critical and commercial success in the Anglophone world is a recent phenomenon. Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom (2011), translated by Chi-young Kim, won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize and became a New York Times bestseller. Deborah Smith’s translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (2016) snatched up that year’s Man Booker International Prize. Pyun’s The Hole (2017), also translated by Kim-Russell, received the Shirley Jackson Award last year, and Pyun’s short fiction has appeared in the New Yorker and Harper’s.
Some critics have greeted this recent global embrace of South Korean literature with something like suspicion. For NPR, Maureen Corrigan described Shin’s Please Look After Mom as “cheap consolation of kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction,” and adding that some of the book was “anti-city, anti-modernist, anti-feminist.” If the review was not racist per se (though Corrigan was accused of that), it was certainly guilty of a kind of jaunty ethnicization of Shin’s book. (Corrigan’s opening line: “Mama Mia, who knew that Koreans outstrip Italians and Jews when it comes to mother guilt!”)
“There’s little difference between scenes of new development and a ruin.”
Tim Parks, on the other hand, implied that works such as The Vegetarian play to critics’ Orientalist appetite. He wondered in the New York Review of Books whether the translation had experienced such international success because it was rendered in a style that played to critics’ expectations of what “global fiction” should sound like. As he wrote in his essay:
Ideologically, it champions the individual (woman) against an oppressive society (about which we know nothing, except that it seems “worse” than our own.) Emotionally, it allows us to feel intense sympathy for a helpless victim, which is always encouraging for our self-esteem. Aesthetically, it offers moments of surrealism… In this regard, the slightly disorienting effect of the translation can actually reinforce our belief that we are coming up against something new and different.
English-language readers in the West encountering “South Korea” as a translated text, then, are drawn to a fantasy about a feminized “helpless victim” who can maximize the ennobling pleasure of sympathy in the reader without imposing the burden of extra-readerly action. Even when the works are contemporaneous, the texts stand for a backwardness that Asian societies persistently evoke in the Western mind, an attitude reflected in the assumption that they seem “‘worse’ than our own.” Subsequent translations of Han’s and Shin’s works (Human Acts and I’ll Be Right There, respectively) also fit the model of “belatedness” and “elsewhere.” Both grapple with the traumatic, if eventually triumphant, struggle for democratization in South Korea, which, at its heroic inception, was violently suppressed with secret approval by the Carter administration. Metropolitan guilt, it turns out, is a dish best served in translation, long after the fact.
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What sets City of Ash and Red apart from these examples is that its themes and narrative strategies appear designed to frustrate the Global Lit machine’s intentions for it. Pyun’s work is part of a literary trend that emerged in the 2000s, identified by critic Yi Gwang-ho as “zero gravity.” (Among writers who have been translated into English, this includes Han Yujoo and Kim Aeran.) According to Yi, they are “post-realist” and “post-historical” in that they have moved beyond the collective political projects of the earlier generation of writers (often male) and have liberated their fictional world from easily identifiable and constraining geopolitical markers. One common attribute among many of these writers is that their fiction is often “de-nationalized.”
Everyday life has become apocalypse in slow motion, punctuated by disasters in which some pay with their lives or livelihood the debt of an unsustainable civilization.
Pyun’s collection of stories Evening Proposal, published by Dalkey Archive Press, contains several instances of “types” of spaces standing in for actual places (for example, “K and S discovered that they had each spent their childhoods in somewhat similar suburban areas”). International modernism—whether practiced by Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, or Samuel Beckett—was a project of arriving at a kind of placelessness through formal or linguistic innovation. South Korea’s zero-gravity writers, building on these precedents, evoke placelessness to grapple with structures and conflicts that are diffused unevenly worldwide and can be detected and felt, with different orders of magnitude, everywhere. By refusing recognizable names to her novel’s settings, for example, Pyun refuses the “elsewhere” position conferred to Korean writers by the hierarchical logic of Global Lit. This is more than a refusal of condescension. It allows her to soar above the limits of literary ghettoization and what Lawrence Venuti has called “ethnocentric violence” of translation.
At the same time that Pyun’s dystopia is nowhere in particular, it is also right here. Readers may find that certain parts of City of Ash and Red strain their suspension of disbelief. How does one forget, for example, to make arrangements for his dog before leaving the country? Even given the novel’s half-fabulist logic, these moments seem ironically intended to trigger flashes of self-recognition. Businesses in City Y are forbidden from staying open past 8:00 p.m., so that citizens can “work to improve the quality of their individual lives,” demanding “a certain level of refinement.” The protagonist wonders if he too can pursue personal fulfillment amidst all the foul stench. He learns eventually that “once you were inside the smell, you stopped noticing it.”
In short, the amnesiac protagonist is left unnamed because he is us. Day after day, the capitalist system exacts a grievous toll on the planet. Day after day, we forget and fancy ourselves innocent. Everyday life has become apocalypse in slow motion, punctuated by disasters of reckoning in which some pay with their lives or livelihood the debt of an unsustainable civilization. Perhaps in the fullness of time, everyone will pay. Until then, the rest of us forgetfully carry on.
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While Pyun’s oeuvre has evolved stylistically over the years, the primordial violence of the human psyche and society has been a steadfast theme. Indeed, the similarities between City of Ash and Red and The Hole (Pyun’s first novel translated into English) are pronounced. Both begin with scenes of confinement. Instead of airport quarantine, the protagonist in The Hole, Oghi, is immobilized by a devastating car accident in which his wife is killed. His memory of the events leading up to the wreck is foggy (sound familiar?), and due to circumstances beyond his control, he must relinquish his affairs and fate to his grieving mother-in-law, who does not have his best interest at heart. He loses his face (literally and figuratively), his career, and his friends. The markers of his humanity and personhood vanish one by one. Death is an inevitability, a literal black hole in the yard waiting for him to crawl inside of it.
Pyun’s amnesiac protagonist is left unnamed because he is us.
The story behind how the title of City of Ash and Red was translated sheds further light on Pyun’s approach to aestheticizing violence and devolution. The original in Korean is closer to “Ash and Red.” Translator Kim-Russell wanted to try to capture the double meaning of “ash,” referring to the powdery trace of a fire and the color: “I toyed with whether to translate the title as Gray and Red, Ash and Red, Ashes and Red. . . . [Pyun] herself said that the title was shorthand for the color palette of the novel. Virtually every scene includes some element of those colors: gray rat fur, smoke, clouds of fumigant, red flames, blood, feverish skin, etc.” The decision to add “city of” to the title was arrived at after weeks of back-and-forth between Kim-Russell, the translation’s editor, and its agent, with the aim of rendering the title less abstract while underscoring the novel’s major theme of urban alienation.
For every passage of dark splendor, Pyun offers quotidian reflections by turns petty, pathetic, and poignant. These moments serve as psycho-emotional ballast, keeping the novel from shimmering away like a lurid dream.
He longed to talk to his ex-wife about her death and about how hurt he was that she had fled to a world so disconnected from his own. But the one who would have been even more eager to talk about her death was his ex-wife herself. . . . The chance to talk to her about the loneliness of keeping secrets from each other, the profound loneliness that came from only sharing what seemed appropriate, that chance was lost to him forever.
While Pyun’s balancing of the apocalyptic and the mundane is masterful, it leaves the reader wondering about a way out of the existential “hole” that global capitalism has placed us in. To that end, I was reminded of The Plague by Albert Camus. Pyun’s lonely and merciless world has no room for the likes of Camus’s beautiful scene in which two friends, fatigued by their battle against a deadly epidemic, seek brief refuge by going for a swim together at night, feeling that “the disease had given them a respite, and this was good, but now they must set their shoulders to the wheel again.” It seems strange to suggest that Camus’s novel, set in Algeria and published in 1947, hails from simpler times. Yet in that moment, there is a sense of solidarity between the men as they persevere against the specter of mass death, a bond that is notably absent among Pyun’s estranged creations. It is as though neoliberal conditions of atomization have bred more savage longing than the horrors of colonialism and World War II. The wheel we must set our shoulders to in our time awaits. Failure may mean a future in which we perceive in the most brutal books of this era a quaintness yet unfathomable.