Literature

JOURNEYS IN KOREAN LITERATURE CRITIQUE

Speaking for Those Who Can’t

Jung Yong-jun made his debut in a literary magazine in 2009, at the age of 28. Issues surrounding speech and communication have since been central themes in all of his five novels and two short story collections. Underlying this preoccupation is a weighty meditation on what it means to be human.

If we consider that fiction is an art based on language and that language is the most powerful tool of communication, it may seem rather odd that Jung Yong-jun uses fiction to delve unremittingly into the premise that communication is difficult or even impossible.

The observations of literary critic Kim Na-yeong in her commentary on Jung’s second short story collection, “Aren’t We Flesh and Blood?” (2015), may help unravel this question. “His fiction deals with a broad range of characters and events under varied themes,” Kim wrote. “But it is noteworthy that, more than anything, the stories start from ‘speaking’ and return to it. His characters are physically barred from speaking by something unspeakable, or are under psychological oppression which makes them unable to speak as they wish; this is precisely what generates the events of the plot.”

Jung’s first novel, “Babel” (2014), is a dramatic portrayal of a situation in which speech has become impossible. A transformation of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, the novel depicts a dystopian situation in which the words people utter turn into rotten, stinking pellets that stick to their bodies. The pellets may be seen as impressionistic symbols of the writer’s distrust and apprehension regarding speech.

In the “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, Jung disclosed his experience of growing up with a stammer caused by a speech-related psychological disorder. This means there is an autobiographical element to the questions into which he persistently inquires. Indeed, such subject matter stands out in Jung’s debut work, “Goodnight, Oblo,” and the protagonist of “Du-Du-Du, Du” in his first short story collection, “Gana” (2011), stammers, too.

The protagonist of Jung’s most recently published novel, “I’m Talking, Aren’t I” (2020), is a 14-year-old boy with a stammer who works to overcome it. He attends a speech therapy center where, with his peers, he practices giving presentations, handing out flyers in the street and telling his story in subway stations. His symptoms improve little by little. In the process, which involves trial and error and moments of despair, what helps him most is the advice of his aunt, a surgeon who is trying to correct her own stammer. “When you feel gloomy and stifled, afraid with the notion that you can’t cope with something, open up a notepad and just write whatever. It makes you feel much better,” she says.

While dubious of her advice, the boy starts writing down the stories of the people at the speech therapy center, and the letters that fill his notepads soon begin to feel like “a prison holding in all the words that he couldn’t get out.” The title of the book reads both as the protagonist’s proud declaration of having overcome his stammer and a testimony to the coming into the world of the author Jung Yong-jun himself, who also broke through the difficulty of speaking.

In the “Author’s Note” for “Aren’t We Flesh and Blood?” Jung wrote:
“People who say that nothing can be done about sad things; people who were just born like that; people who don’t even realize they feel wronged and angry, and just go on living, with a strange glint in their eyes; those who burn with rage and quickly turn to ash; and transparent spirits that have lost their light. Why do I write about these things? Perhaps it’s because I’m sorry. Or perhaps it’s because I’m ashamed.”

His reasons for writing about such people and situations probably stem from both his remorse and shame. Or perhaps he writes in order to feel less sorry and less ashamed. The short story “Strolling Seolleung” deals with those sad and wronged and angry individuals, as well as the author’s sense of remorse and shame. It was published in the Winter 2015 edition of a literary magazine and earned the author several important prizes.

Jung Yong-jun:
“People who say that nothing can be done about sad things; people who were just born like that; people who don’t even realize they feel wronged and angry, and just go on living, with a strange glint in their eyes…Why do I write about these things?”

“Strolling Seolleung” is narrated from the perspective of a jobless graduate who spends 12 hours looking after Han Doo-un, a 20-year-old man with autism. It depicts how the narrator, who simply intended to make a nice bit of cash by covering his friend’s side gig for a day, first encounters and spends time with Han, his awareness gradually changing in the process.

Because of Han’s autism and its particular symptoms, the two men are unable to communicate smoothly. The narrator can’t figure out what Han could possibly be thinking, and even wonders to himself, “Does he have any kind of self-awareness?” He spends the day with Han strolling around Seolleung, an ancient royal graveyard in the middle of Seoul, feeling restless and nervous because he can’t understand his companion. In the course of this simple and repetitive walk, the wall between them gives way bit by bit, as indicated in the minute changes in the looks they exchange.

When they first meet, Han Doo-un won’t even look at the narrator, who glares at him carelessly spitting on the ground. This awkward relationship gradually thaws through a series of incidents. Some level of communion is reached between the two characters, and by the time the narrator finds himself telling a story from his university days, Han responds with a smile.

Of course, the barrier between them can’t be completely cleared away during a day-long walk. Misunderstandings and conflicts brew and boil over, and the narrator ends up being scolded by Han Doo-un’s guardian for failing to protect him properly. But when it seems things have hit rock bottom, Han expresses his gratitude to the narrator through his own unique gesture, which can be taken as silent but compelling evidence that their stroll wasn’t all in vain.

Musing on the background behind writing this story, the author said, “There are so few people you can talk to in this world. They all too easily exaggerate and inflate, and at times even cleverly change what I say as they pass it on. Causes and consequences diverge, and with everything from the nuance to the temperature of my delivery changed, I somehow become someone who said something weird. I’m aware that they conveyed my words strangely, and they know that I know, and despite all this we smile and shake hands. This life of mine seems like a scene of fiction that I haven’t been able to write – one which I find myself wanting to delete completely or edit meticulously.”

Choi Jae-bong Reporter, The Hankyoreh
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