No Heroes

Krys Lee ranks among the must-read Korean authors. Together with Han Kang and Shin Kyung-sook, Lee writes about contemporary Korea. If you want to believe the narrative offered in Korean museums and monuments, this should be an heroic tale. Last century’s struggle against Japanese colonialism, the fight for democracy in the 1980s, and the ongoing yearning to be reunited with the North. In her short story collection Drifting House, Lee banishes these epic battles into the background. Her concern is with those left behind.

Children

While the adults are off doing great deeds, children are left to fend for themselves. Lee is an unusual Korean author in her attention to the plight of those living north of the DMZ. “Drifting House”, the title story of the collection, was first published by Granta in 2012. Its protagonist is 11 year old Woncheol. His mother has abandoned him and his two siblings in their unnamed village in North Korea.

Lee knows that the frozen Tumen River is where many North Koreans try to cross into China. Her work to support them has resulted in death threats and a novel, How to Become a North Korean. Woncheol must choose between certain death by starvation at home or probable death on the journey to China.

Woncheol looks west to China, a country where somewhere, he had a mother. There were a great many things he didn’t know, he realized, and as he gazed at the horizon of splintered peaks, his life shrank in significance.

Krys Lee, “Drifting House”

Across the ocean, a slow trickle of North Korean refugees reach the US. One of them is a 9 year old boy. At home, his parents call him Myeongseok. At school, he goes by the name Mark. Unlike Woncheol, Mark knows everything.

He knew that in Peru one bush housed more ant species that all of the United Kingdom, and that rain forests about three thousand feet were called cloud forests. That dogs had nose prints the way humans had fingerprints, that a violin contained more than seventy pieces of wool, and that ninety-nine percent of what people bought they didn’t use after six months.

“At the Edge of the World”

The only thing Mark can’t figure out is why his father is so sad.

Poetic Flights

By and large, Lee is brutal in her depiction of life. Her prose is cool and unaffected. She must feel no desire to mediate between her words and the reader.

On occasion, however, Lee diverts her gaze to launch into a flight of poetic fancy. This occurs at the climax of “Drifting House” and again in “The Believer”, a tale about incest and loss of faith. As powerful as both stories are, their endings felt like the easy way out.

Yet that same device works marvelously in the closing story. Lee gives us vignettes: Mina at the age of 4, her mother Mrs. Lim at the fortuneteller, Mina’s first kiss. The reader must piece together Lee’s brilliant strands to recognize the tale of a woman eclipsed by her daughter’s beauty.

Under her mother’s skirt, there is the shimmer of pink gills. Mina strokes the down of her mother’s leg past the puckered marks of slugs on her mother’s thighs, up to the dark starfish she spied under a strip of translucent fabric. But these mysteries become ordinary, merely thighs and fatty flesh, when her mother slaps her hand.

“Beautiful Women”

Men

Men don’t come off well in Drifting House. They get themselves killed in war. Or, they outlive their usefulness. In “A Small Sorrow”, Seongwon was once a democracy activist: beaten, imprisoned and tortured. Now that his cause has succeeded, he’s become a serial adulterer.

In “The Salaryman”, Lee takes us back to the 1997 financial crisis when South Koreans lost their pensions, jobs and moral compass.

Ms. Min, the only woman in marketing with you, has divorced her husband, employed in the strategy planning department. You suspect this shameful state of her affairs is a paper divorce only, for companies like to fire married women who can rely on their husbands.

Then the salaryman himself is fired. He’s ashamed to go home. By day, he seeks gainful employment like thousands others. By night, he sleeps in the park. Soon enough, despair sets in. The salaryman descends into an underworld where his former self frays as quickly as his woolen suit.

You get used to many things. For instance, queuing for a free meal at Tapgol Park before noon. Clearing out of the chilly arcade each morning when the police hustle you. […] Waking up underground to the bitter bouquet of your comrades’ bodies in monsoon season.

Drifting House is a collection of dark tales about a side of Korea you won’t find glorified in a museum or monument. Lee has no time for heroes.

11 November 2019 | Karen Kao