At Dusk

Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk (translated by Sora Kim-Russell) is a novel which holds a generation to judgement and finds them wanting. As the title suggests, it is a generation, presumably Hwang’s own (he was born in 1943), which is approaching its final moments. The novel itself sees a number of characters die, and in the form of Kim Kiyoung the idea of legacy is tackled directly as his fellow architects arrange a retrospective of his work in the final weeks of his life.

Architecture is the window through which Hwang reviews what his generation have made of South Korea, an area where art and business coincide to literally rebuild the landscape. As one of two narrators, Park Minwoo, explains:

“Everyone thinks it’s good to be an architect, because your building will stand long after your gone, but for all you know, they could be left looking greedy and ugly.”

The same idea is idea is expressed by Kim earlier in conversation with Park:

“Is there really humanity in architecture? If there were you’d have to regret what you did. You and the others at Hyeonsan need to think on your sins.”

For Park the issue becomes personal. Contact from an old friend, a girl he once loved, Cha Soona, brings back memories of his life as a school boy in a slum area. Soona is the only other child attending school; seeing her in the street, he remembers was, like “sighting a single white crane in the middle of a disaster area.” They soon take to meeting at the library and grow close, but Park’s ambition to leave coincides with a sexual assault on Soona which makes her withdraw from him and eventually they lose touch. Park’s relationship with Soona comes to represent his relationship with his past. Where he lived has been entirely rebuilt by architects like himself, but not necessarily for the better:

“The boxy two- and three- storey buildings that occupied downtown from the shopping area all the way to the residential area looked bleaker than ever.”

Park himself has been rebuilt in his search for success, realising that he must flatter the powerful if he is to get ahead:

“All you had to do was listen closely to what the person with power said, and then say the same thing, but using different words… Hiding my true thoughts was second nature to me by then.”

His sense of fairness, which we see in his recollections of his childhood and adolescence, also begins to fade:

“I sympathised with those who were fighting social injustices, but at the same time, by having the fortitude to just buckle down and get through it, I was able to forgive myself for not getting involved.”

Park’s narrative is joined by Soona’s recollections as he is sent extracts from a memoir she has written, combining to give us a truer picture of their past. At the same time there is a second narrative from the point of view of a young playwright, Jung Wohee. Jung struggles to make a living, working at a convenience store overnight to subsidise her writing. She is, in some ways, representative of another generation:

“I met countless people my age who were just like me. The reminded me of the tiny mammals who cower among the beast of prey deep in the jungle and must survive on wits alone.”

One reason Jung is able to fend off despair is the example of her friend Kim Minwoo: “For him, the worse things got, the fiercer his approach to life.” Jung and Kim offer some hope to the reader, though it is clear they have been to a large extent abandoned by Park’s generation. This neglect is exemplified by a story Kim tells Jung of an eviction to make way for demolition and rebuilding where a young man is killed by an excavator. Later in the novel Park remembers how, when an eviction was taking place:

“We always jumped in the car and left in a hurry, right before the demolition crews broke up the protestors and sent in the bulldozers and excavators, as if we couldn’t bear to watch it ourselves.”

The two narratives do, of course, unite, in a way that is both unexpected and satisfying. Hwang does not seek to resolve Park’s crisis of faith, nor reward Jung’s loyalty to her friend, but both characters are subtly changed by the end.

Kim Kiyoung is not regarded by his peers as particularly successful architect, but Park is forced to reassess his legacy:

“But though he had mostly designed smaller buildings in small towns and provincial cities and remote parts of the country, they were novel for being public buildings.”

How we define success, and what we value and reward, is the problem, Hwang suggests, in this concise but powerful examination of where it all went wrong in a country we are frequently asked to emulate.

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7 Responses to “At Dusk”

  1. Man Booker International Prize 2019 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong (South Korea), translated by Sora Kim-Russell (Scribe) […]

  2. Tony Says:

    Sounds like you enjoyed it 🙂 This hasn’t hit the spot for everyone, but again I think it’s more in comparison with what didn’t make the longlist I liked it, even if I still think he’s written better books.

  3. Scott Says:

    I loved this book and was happy to see it on the longlist – hoping to see it on the short one. It explored the politics within a country; defined the ideologies of failure and success, and was grounded in the universal theme of sexuality. Like you, I plan to read the other books Tony found superior.

  4. Simon T Says:

    Sounds fascinating – I love the idea of architecture being the lens.

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