LITERATURE

JOURNEYS IN KOREAN LITERATURE CRITIQUE

We are all Haruo


“The main setting of ‘At Least Half a Haruo’ is a holiday in india, but i actually think of it as a story about homeland. Haruo seems to feel at home wherever he is.”

Lee Jang-wook is a novelist and a poet. Among the Korean literary community it is not rare to find novelists who started out as poets, but there aren’t many writers like Lee Jang-wook who, having made inroads in another genre, continues to be just as productive in both. In 2014, Lee received the Kim Yu-jeong Literary Award, one of the country’s major fiction prizes, and then in 2016, he was awarded the prestigious Daesan Literary Award for his poetry. This demonstrates just how well-received his work continues to be, both poetry and prose.

Published in 2013, the first thing to grab the attention in Lee Jang-wook’s short story “At Least Half a Haruo” is its riddle of a title. The story recounts the Korean protagonist’s observations of a Japanese man called Haruo Takahashi, and the title relates to Haruo’s ethnic background. Considering the fact that Haruo enjoys traveling and gets along well with unfamiliar people, the protagonist tells him, “You’re different from the other Japanese people I know,” and to the protagonist stuck in such a mindset, Haruo makes a curious joke, “So you could say, at least half a Haruo is a Haruo that’s somehow different.” This utterance does not merely apply to notions of genealogy. Haruo responds to the protagonist’s comment with a smile, “You’re different from the other Korean people I know, too.” In these words, one can detect a genteel form of resistance and critique of the all-too-common tendency to judge and define people according to ethnic or national background. It could be said, therefore, that this story uses the enigmatic character of Haruo, who has a mystique and attractiveness which is hard to define precisely, to explore ideas of difference and otherness.

Going beyond merely enjoying traveling to actually doing it as an occupation, Haruo exudes an alluring cosmopolitanism. It could be said that Haruo’s biological genealogy naturally makes him cosmopolitan, but in order to become the cosmopolitan figure we meet in the story, he had to go through a “death defying” kind of adventure. Having been bullied at school and later flunking the university entrance exam, Haruo sets off on a “suicide trip” to Korea, and in the southern city of Busan, he has an experience that transforms his life in a fundamental way. Strictly speaking, this momentary, coincidental meeting is not a particularly remarkable experience, but it results in his wish to die dissipating completely. When Haruo tries to explain it, he says, “You could say it was like, in a single moment, the being that was me was moved about five centimeters into another world.” It would be more precise, then, to say that in a state of preparedness for a shift in being, that small experience became the equivalent of pulling the trigger. Whatever the details of this shift, it is through this happening that Haruo becomes a “different” person in a “different” world. It marks the birth of the cosmopolitan “at least half a Haruo.”
The protagonist first meets and becomes friends with Haruo while traveling in India with his girlfriend, and from then on keeps track of him by reading the posts he writes on his blog. But as time goes by, the protagonist visits Haruo’s website less frequently, and in the end stops checking on it altogether. Having lost contact with Haruo, he hears about him again years later from his now ex-girlfriend. While working as a flight attendant, she witnessed an incident involving Haruo at an airport in America. At the time, Haruo was refusing to be put through a full body scan, which is often demanded of Asian-looking foreign travelers at American airports, and so he was dragged off to an interrogation room by airport security guards. The protagonist’s ex-girlfriend adds, “I’m not certain whether or not it really was Haruo, but . . .” that person has to have been Haruo. To try to expand on this premise, it seems like the airport incident signifies the restriction and breakdown of the “Haruo-type life.” It demonstrates the reality in which, with safety measures intensified for travelers following the September 11 terrorist attacks on American soil, that way of life is no longer possible. A world in which the difference and otherness that Haruo pursued and which his character symbolized can barely continue to exist. The fact that Haruo’s blog is taken offline following the airport incident could also reflect the circumstances in which the Haruo-type life, and therefore the person that Haruo was, has become an impossibility. If the story ended here, it would have to be called a tragic or cynical conclusion. But it seems the writer wants to say that, although Haruo disappeared, the Haruo-type life has not been completely wiped out. When the protagonist is put in charge of screening applicants for new international employees at the company where he works, a Japanese man “similar to Haruo,” named Kyosuke Hara, applies and is called for an interview.
At the end of the story, the protagonist resigns from the company without incident and books himself a plane ticket to India. Although it seemed as though the protagonist had forgotten about Haruo completely, he had in fact been searching for him all along, and, to put it more precisely, believed that Haruo had to exist in this world somehow. It could be said that in this way, the story demonstrates the contagiousness of the Haruo-like life, and with this, perhaps we witness a continuation of the Haruo-like life into the future.
The following lines from an interview with Lee Jang-wook which appeared in the literary review journal Axt (Volume 6, May 2016) will probably help readers gain a deeper understanding of this story.
“The main setting of ‘At Least Half a Haruo’ is a holiday in India, but I actually think of it as a story about homeland. You have a character like Haruo who has no homeland and the character of the protagonist’s father who is utterly attached to his village. Later I found the following rumination about the humanism of exiles, quoted by Edward Said in a book: The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.
“Haruo seems to fall into the second category, someone who feels at home wherever he is. But it says that a really perfect person is one who feels that all places are foreign. Although I imagine it would be agonizing to live that way.”

Choi Jae-bong Reporter, The Hankyoreh

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