An Allegorical Tale of Isolation and Ostracization

‘City of Ash and Red’

By Hye-young Pyun, Translated by Sora Kim-Russell, 256 pages, $24.99, New York: Arcade Publishing [2018]

Pyun Hye-young’s “City of Ash and Red” opens with the nameless protagonist being detained at an international airport on suspicion of being infected with a virus that is terrorizing the country. Fortunately, the test results show that he merely has a cold, and he is allowed to leave. Though a stranger in a strange land with only a very tentative grasp of the local language, the man manages to make his way to the apartment that will presumably be his home for the next few months.

His problems have only just begun, though. He arrives in his new district to find the streets piled high with trash and obscured by a white chemical fog of fumigants. His carelessness leads to his suitcase being stolen; most of its contents are trivial, but among them are his phone with all his contacts, and with this his gradual but inexorable severing from the world he once knew begins. Even the relative safety and comfort of his new apartment is short-lived when shocking news from home causes him to flee in fear. His journey is both a literal and metaphorical sinking into the filth and stench of a society that seems to have broken down, and he slips through the cracks until he can fall no further.

Pyun’s novel has a strange, dreamlike (although at times “nightmarish” would be a more apt descriptor), even allegorical quality to it. This is due in part to the fact that many people and places are left unnamed, including the protagonist, his ex-wife, and even the name of the country he has moved to, which is only ever referred to as “Country C.” This is a technique not unheard of in Korean fiction, but it seems particularly effective here in lending an air of universality to the story.

There is also Pyun’s prose, which draws on all the senses to make us feel as if we were right there with the protagonist — in a park obscured by the smoke of a trash fire, in a dark and noxious sewer with its slowly flowing river of refuse — but at the same time remains elusive enough on specific details that it might also take place just about anywhere.

The novel is a tale of disorientation, a tale of isolation, a tale of ostracization. The protagonist is cut off and left alone, and his desperate attempts to establish or reestablish contact are repeatedly met with failure. Although he eventually rises from the depths, his feet never seem to find solid ground again, and he is left “a man suspended in thin air, a man airborne.”

Perhaps because of this lack of connection, he has difficulty seeing ahead in his life into a future that is “unknowably vast and colossal, and so very, very far away.” Even the present is often shrouded — sometimes literally by the fumigant fog, at other times by his inability to understand what is going on around him — so he spends much of his time reflecting on his past, a past that holds dark secrets. The more we learn of the protagonist through these flashbacks, the less sympathetic he becomes, but he never ceases to be fascinating; despite (or perhaps because of) all his flaws, he is recognizably and believably human. And as we join him on his journey, we can’t help but ask what might happen were the rug to be pulled out from beneath our own comfortable lives and we, too, found ourselves falling headlong into the abyss.

A Rare Visual Study of Korean Shaman Deities

‘The Paintings of Korean Shaman Gods: History, Relevance and Role as Religious Icons’

By Kim Tae-gon, Translated by Christina Han, 207 pages, £75.00, Kent: Renaissance Books [2018]

First published in Korean in 1989, this is a memorable work by the respected scholar of Korean shamanism Kim Tae-gon (1936–1996). The present English volume has been translated by Christina Han, a curatorial consultant and research associate at the Royal Ontario Museum. Han has contributed a brief but useful introduction to shamanism in Korea, to the shaman gods and how they are represented, and to the role of shaman paintings in rituals and other aspects of Korean shamanism.

The first chapter, by Kim Tae-gon, provides a detailed history of the shaman god paintings and also introduces the reader to the different types of shamans in Korea and their relationships to the paintings. Kim then goes on to categorize the paintings and describe the individual figures that appear in them, and he ends the chapter by placing these works of art in their proper ritual context. A second chapter by professor of art history Bak Yong-suk sheds light on the paintings from a different angle, explaining the characteristics of shaman gods and the paintings that depict them, as well as describing the significance of the assorted items of clothing, the artifacts and the themes present in the works.

The majority of the book, though, consists of 130 color images of shaman gods from paintings discovered by Kim during his travels around South Korea and research into shamanism. Their vibrant colors and simple yet expressive style draw the viewer in, as if the painters somehow managed to capture the energy of the gods with their brushes. The book brings to light a rare visual element that serves as a colorful window into Korean shamanism.

The Traces of Breathing


By Park Jiha, Audio CD $17.98, Hamburg: Glitterbeat Records [2018]

Park Jiha’s path in music started with the flute as a child and continued with the traditional Korean bamboo instruments, the piri (double-reed oboe) and the saenghwang (mouth organ). After graduating from university, she formed a group called “su:m” (meaning “breath”) and began her performing career. Like the name of the group, Park Jiha’s music leaves traces of breathing.

After the release of the group’s first album, “Breathing in Space,” in 2010, Park was invited to participate in several renowned music festivals, such as WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) and SXSW (South by Southwest). Her performances on major international stages put her in the spotlight.

“Communion,” Park’s first solo album released in 2016, was made during a break from the band. Through its re-release in 2018 by German label Glitterbeat Records, the album debuted on the world music market, drawing the attention of international media. Pitchfork and The Guardian chose it as “album of the month” and called Park “a new musician deserving attention.”

The album contains elements of both minimalism and avant-garde jazz. However, the repetitions are subtle and create a tone different to minimalism; the simplicity of the music and the clarity of its structure diverge from avant-garde jazz.

Reminiscent of the work of Norwegian jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek, the title track “Communion” represents the album’s identity. Park Jiha’s piri, Kim Oki’s tenor saxophone and John Bell’s vibraphone share bonds of sympathy in exquisite harmony. The most popular piece is “The Longing of the Yawning Divide,” an improvisational piece inspired by the solemn atmosphere and reverberations of a room at Keizersberg Abbey in Leuven, Belgium, where rehearsals were held.

Charles La Shure Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature, Seoul National University
Ryu Tae-hyung Music Columnist; Consultant, Daewon Cultural Foundation
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