At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong (translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

I had a hard time following this novel as I read. It seems simple enough: a story about Moon Hollow, a slum in Korea where parents and their children have to fight for their existence. But there are many points of view, many different names, and no heading at the beginning of each chapter to indicate which character may be narrating the story.

Is is it Park Minwoo, who was able to lift himself out of poverty, go to college, become an architect, and all the while fail to consider the people he’s left behind in the slum? Is it Cha Soona, the beautiful girl who loves him? Or, is it Jung Wohee, the beginning playwright and director who has inserted herself, unbeknownst to Minwoo, into their lives? It all becomes clear in the end, while on the way to the conclusion there are terrible stories of life in the slum.

Park Minwoo’s father fries fishcakes, Cha Soona’s family make noodles, and one group of children establish a shoe shine business. A group of ten raggedy-looking boys all work as shoeshine boys for Jaemyung, including his younger brother, Jaegeun.  They are not about to lose their business to a kid named Tomak, who suddenly comes in from another neighborhood and tells them to find work elsewhere, especially as it is Jaemyung who keeps the family together after the death of his father. The fights that ensue, as he earns the right to keep his shoeshine stands, are terrifying and brutal. They are what is necessary to survive.

It is disturbing to me that Park Minwoo is able to extricate himself so completely from this environment. On one hand, he is to be commended for gaining the knowledge and skill necessary to be a skilled architect, one who has worked himself up from such extreme poverty. On the other, how is it that he is able to distance himself so completely from his family and friends in their ramshackle houses?

In the past, when slum neighborhoods were rebuilt, construction company employees would go door to door to offer some form of appeasement and get their signatures, but nowadays the process went no further than a reconstruction committee’s approval…Perfectly good buildings were ruthlessly demolished, the excavators letting out their terrible roars, while helpless shouts and cries rang out from among the protesters. The families would hold out for three or four days, but as the street filled with wreckage and rubble, they would start to leave, one or two at a time, and the community would fall apart, as splintered and fragmented as their demolished homes.

Hwang Sok-yung’s novel is surely not appicable to Korea alone. With it, he causes us to look at the poverty around us, much of it overshadowed by mansions behind thick walls. How much responsibility do we bear to alleviate some of the suffering, not only for the good of the people, but for the good of ourselves?

On the last page, Park Minwoo is divorced and living alone. His professional success has brought him neither love nor family, and the last line is this:

And so I stood, in the middle of the sidewalk of what was once Moon Hollow, like a man who’d lost his way.

It is a bitter, sharp awareness that he has come to, facing the consequences of the choices he has made.

(Thanks to Scribe publishers for a copy of At Dusk to review for the Man Booker International Prize. Find another review of this book at Tony’s Reading List.)