There has to be an equivalent of Americana in each country; art that digs deep into the culture and history of a place in a way that allows those who consume it to get a sense of what that country's shifting zeitgeist is like.
With that in mind, Hwang Sok-yong's At Dusk is a perfect slice of Koreana; a touching, somewhat depressive narrative full of nostalgia that shows the underbelly of a nation through the life of characters inhabiting society's bottom rung.
Park Minwoo's life is a classic rags-to-riches story. He was born into poverty to struggling parents living in a slum in Seoul. He ran around with budding criminals and got in a lot of fights. Then he found a way out: education. Minwoo focused on academia and became the director of a large architectural firm that played a role in changing the country by developing and gentrifying small towns and poor neighborhoods. Minwoo receives a message after a lecture and suddenly Cha Soona, a woman he used to be in love with back in his old neighborhood, unexpectedly reenters his life. Soona's appearance opens the floodgates of memory and soon Minwoo is forced to analyze his life. The process, aided by a series of emails from Soona that contain chunks of her memoir, forces Minwoo to reevaluate his escape from the slum and the way he changed Soona's life.
At Dusk, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, is told from two perspectives: that of Minwoo and that of the young woman who delivers Soona's message. They belong to different generations, but they face the same struggles. The perennial hustle to escape poverty and a life of one low-paying, part-time job after another is one of the elements that gives the novel its sense of cohesion. The second is the sense of violent change that all characters observe. This is seen most clearly in Minwoo, who goes back to his hometown after many years away and finds it has vanished:
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"I couldn't wrap my brain around how civilized it had become — my hometown, which now had more people who'd left than people who'd stayed. The boxy two- and three-storey cement buildings that occupied downtown from the shopping area all the way to the residential area looked bleaker than ever. There was no smoke from cooking fires curling up from low roofs. Looking down on it from the hillside, it could've been any other small city, or worse, the outskirts of Seoul. It was as if me and Tan Goguma, my long-departed parents, and even my hometown itself had never really existed."
At Dusk is suffused with a subdued sense of nihilism that comes from being poor and having no viable options. Things in South Korea are what they are, and those for whom education is not an escape option are forced to accept their fate and endure a life of paucity and awful, low-paying jobs. Sok-yong brilliantly shows the ennui young South Koreans are forced into by the system:
"I lie on my old mattress for a while, but I'm not sleepy. I get up and sit at the computer instead. I've been struggling with insomnia for the last few months and haven't been eating properly, and now, my hair has started falling out, and the loose strands all over my room annoy me. How long has it been since I last came home from the graveyard shift at the convenience store and collapsed from exhaustion directly into a deep sleep?"
Besides ennui and nostalgia, At Dusk also deals with memory. Minwoo remembers things one way, but Soona's words shatter his recollection of certain events. She was a girl he was obsessed with, a friend he saw a few times on short trips back home, and a women he slept with once. However, things were different for Soona and Minwoo changed her life in profound ways, all of which he ignored. The revelations force him to rethink his past, to realize that perspective, agendas, and subjectivity distort memories:
"The thing about memory is that two people can end up with different versions of the same event. Either the storyline gets distorted because of your emotional state at the time, or you inadvertently forget it happened once time has moved on."
At Dusk is a superb look at South Korea filtered through a variety of lenses. The spectrum ranges from that of one person who managed to use education as a way out of the slum, and who lost his family to his work, to one for whom floating aimlessly from one bad job to another led to finding a final escape on a suicide pact website. By offering such an array of narratives and framing them within the politics and culture of Korea, Sok-yong proves once again that fiction can be the best way to tell devastating truths.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.