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• Friday, February 24th, 2017

Shin Kyung-Sook was born in 1963 in a village near Jeongeup, north Jeolla Province, in southern South Korea, from humble farmer parents who lacked the financial means to send her to high school. She was the fourth child and eldest daughter of six. At the age of sixteen Shin joined her elder brother in Seoul where she worked at an electronics plant while at the same time attending evening classes.

After graduating as a creative writing major from the Seoul Institute Of Arts, Shin published her first novella “Winter’s Fable” which earned her the 1985 Literary Joongang Newcomer’s Prize.

Shin’s work consists of novels, short stories and non-fiction. She has received several literary prizes and awards and is the most acclaimed writer in South Korea. Please Look After Mother has been translated into several languages and won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. It was originally published in Korean in 2008 and in English in 2011.

Presently Shin divides her timetable between Seoul and New York City, where she teaches as a visiting scholar at Colombia University.

Please Look After Mother starts with the one week missing, sixty-nine-year-old illiterate, hard-working peasant, Park So-nyo, who was with her husband on their way to visit their children in Seoul. She is separated from her husband, who is walking fast, ahead of her as usual, in Seoul’s crowded central railway station. The distracted husband boards the congested train in a hurry while his wife is left behind on the platform.

Park So-nyo’s husband and her four adult children, two sons and two daughters, undertake a thorough search to try to find her. The businessman, Hyong-chol, is the eldest son and the successful novelist, Chi-hon, is the eldest daughter.

Park So-nyo’s disappearance leads to a strange mixed feeling in her family, realising that they didn’t really know her well and took her for granted all these years without showing her any gratitude and without ever devoting time to appreciate the love and sacrifice of this kind, affable and generous woman.

Please Look After Mother, Shin’s sixth novel and her first to be translated into other languages, is a short, powerful and heavily emotional book. It is divided into four chapters plus an epilogue. The first chapter concerns the daughter, Chi-hon and the third chapter belongs to Park So-nyo’s husband. The narration in these two chapters is in the uncommon second-person style which lends the novel a note of personal intimacy as well as a general accusatory tone.

In the second chapter, Hyong-chol, Park So-nyo’s favourite child is the focal point. And by a twist from the author, in the fourth chapter the mother reappears as a ghost – suggesting that she has already passed away – to narrate her side of the story which is the most evocative and lyrical part of the novel.

In the poignant, melodramatic, short epilogue, Shin leads the story through a spiritual path by taking the maternal love and devotion to a higher level, turning it into self-martyrdom worthy of sanctity. The author goes to the extent of comparing Park So-nyo to the virgin Mary in Michael Angelo’s “Pietà” and the novel ends with Chi-hon praying and pleading to the virgin Mary to look after her mother.

Each chapter conveys the thoughts, the feelings, the guilt and remorse of each one of the characters. The different narrations as they unravel gradually, constitute the multifaceted story that forms the full image of the matriarch’s character and illustrates the veracity and inner self of each member of the family.

The reader learns that Park So-nyo is a kind-hearted, tough, resilient and determined, solitary woman who is averse to pity and therefore suffers silently from brain cancer, while her family is too busy ignoring the symptoms of her debilitating, dangerous disease. And although poor and in fragile health, she continues to devote herself to helping the less fortunate than her. She gives assistance and comfort to the destitute Un’gyu, his sick wife and to his newly born baby. She is also a donor and a helper in the local orphanage as well as a devoted, self sacrificing mother and wife.

In Please Look After My Mother, the author tackles an important subject by placing in juxtaposition rural and urban life and their effects on societies by creating an unbalance with the increasing social shift from one to the other : a common preoccupation world-wide, not only in South Korea. Young people from the countryside migrating to the big cities, whether they seek education or work in the hope of a better life. They end up settling in the big city leaving their parents behind and nobody to look after the parents or to take over the agricultural land.

In one of her interviews Shin says about her novel: “We’ve taken it for granted that our mothers are always here beside us and devoted to us. We think they are born to be mothers. But they were once girls and women as we are now. I want to show it through this book. My mother is the energy behind my writings.”

How far back can we remember a human being? And how far does the memory of a mother last? Please Look After Mother is a moving, gloomy story, a hymn and a tribute to maternal love and a contemplation on motherhood. A good insight into Korean culture, values, food, festivals and political changes.

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Author:
• Saturday, March 19th, 2016

Mikhail Afanasyevich Boulgakov was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1891, during the Russian empire, and died from a kidney disease in 1940 in Moscow during the Soviet era. He was one of seven children, the eldest of three brothers. His father was an assistant professor at the Kiev Theological Academy and his mother a former teacher.

After finishing high school, Boulgakov studied medicine at the Medical Faculty of Kiev University. He graduated in 1916 and worked as a surgeon in Chernovtsy hospital in Ukraine before dedicating his life to writing: plays, novels and short stories. He married three times, the first in 1913, the second in1924 and the third time in 1931.

Boulgakov was known for his scathing attacks on the communist regime which caused his disgrace by the authorities and by 1930 he was no longer allowed to publish his work. His request for permission to leave the country was refused and his literary ostracism remained until he died. Boulgakov was posthumously and slowly rehabilitated ten years after his death in the late 1950s but it wasn’t until 1962 that many of his plays, novels and short stories were published.

Heart Of A Dog, written in Russian and published in 1925 was banned from publication by the Soviet authorities soon after, because it was considered to be controversial and regarded as an allegory of the unsuccessful Russian revolution as well as a criticism of the new regime and an attack on their political idealism. The novel was first translated into English by Michael Glenny in 1968, long before it was allowed to be officially published in the Soviet Union in 1987, sixty-two years after the novel had been written and forty-seven years after Boulgakov’s death.

The story is set in Moscow in the early nineteen twenties. It starts with a badly mistreated, injured, suffering and moaning street mongrel dog, who due to starvation has been rummaging through dustbins searching for food when a cruel cook scolds it with boiling water as a deterrent. The poor dog, out of breath, lies in agony under a porch, crying and bitterly bemoaning his fate, his rough life and the challenges he has to endure for survival, especially in the cold freezing winter.

The renowned surgeon, professor Filip Filippovitch, who happens to be passing, encounters the shabby dog. The professor gives him a piece of sausage, buys him food, takes him home, feeds him, looks after him and treats his badly wounded, burnt flank.

The dog is given the name Sharik (a common name given to dogs in Russia) and is a Godsend for the professor who wants to carry out an audacious experiment, with the help of his assistant, Dr Bormenthal, by transplanting the genital glands as well as the pituitary gland of a freshly dead human unto Sharik’s body. The result is astoundingly successful but the draw back is that the good natured dog becomes an uncontrollable, lustful, hairy man with a foul vocabulary, a thug, an alcoholic and a petty thief like the twenty-eight-year old deceased man he is replacing. Nevertheless, he still keeps some of the dog impulse like hating and chasing cats.

Sharik evolves into Sharikov and blends in well with communist society by becoming an eager government worker. When Professor Filippovitch is faced with all the indoor and outdoor problems that Sharikov is creating he becomes strict with him by trying to educate him to be civil, reasonable and act responsibly but to no avail. Sharikov resents the professor and his strict discipline. In fact he dislikes him intensely and threatens to denounce him to the authorities for being a reactionary by making negative remarks against the revolution.

Heart Of A Dog narrated by the dog, Sharikov, is a scornful satirical comedy on pseudo-science, a surreal mixture of fact and fantasy. The author denounces the corruption, prejudice and bigotry of the communist regime and its leaders who were more intent on pillage and class vindictiveness than creating a better new life for their citizens. In his novel the author expresses, through professor Filippovitch, the overcritical protagonist, his disapprobation of the Soviet system by depicting a 1917 revolution that lost its way and went wrong.

The unprecedented, presumptuous, cruel and inhuman experiment that Professor Filippovitch and his assistant Dr Bormenthal undertake, depicts the folly of men who don’t know the limits of their power and start tampering with the unknown, to the detriment of celestial and natural powers, to end up with an alarmingly threatening and fiendish result. Heart Of A Dog is an imaginative story with a strong message that can be interpreted as an allegory of the Soviet Union’s political system, which is like professor Filippovitch’s experiment on the stray dog, clearly doomed to failure.

Luckily, with the experiment done on Sharik, there is a reversibility. After realising his failure, professor Filippovitch undertakes a surgical operation on Sharikov, this time removing the human glands and transplanting to Sharik his original genital and pituitary glands which had been preserved. After the successful reverse operation, the uncontrollable, ungrateful fake human, Sharikov returns to his former harmless state as the pleasant, grateful dog, Sharik.

At the time of writing his novel, Boulgakov didn’t know that his wish would come true, one day, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 after about seventy years of existence and fifty one years after his death. Mikhail Boulgakov was a man with a vision that was ahead of its time.