Hwang Junguan’s One Hundred Shadows, a Korean novel originally published in 2010 and translated by Jung Yewon, is the second title from Tilted Axis Press. The novel has a fairy-tale quality to it, beginning with a young woman wandering lost in the woods:
“I saw a shadow in the woods. I didn’t know it was a shadow at first. I saw it slip through a thicket and followed it in, wondering if there was a path, and thinking how familiar it looked. The woods grew more dense the deeper in I went, but I kept on going deeper and deeper because the deeper I went, the more the shadow drew me in.”
The repetition (woods twice, shadow three times, deeper four) is typical of the novel’s style, creating a hypnotic simplicity. The narrator, Eunygo, has been drawn into the woods chasing her own shadow. Only the intervention of her friend, Mujae, (perhaps) saves her. As they attempt to find their way out of the woods, he tells her the story of (perhaps) his father, who also saw his shadow “rise”:
“If you spot someone who looks like you, it’s your shadow, and once your shadow rises it’s over for you, because shadows are very persistent, because you can’t bear not to follow your shadow once it’s risen. And then, looking like a ghost, he died.”
Mujae links the rising of his father’s shadow with his father falling into debt, and throughout the novel this phenomenon is connected to poverty and hopelessness. (As Mr Yeo says about his own shadow rising, “My life hasn’t exactly been plain sailing so it was inevitable really.”) All of the novel’s characters are poor, and if you are fearing that the novel exists in an entirely allegorical landscape, nothing could be further from the truth. Once free from the forest, Eunygo and Mujae are firmly located in the world of working class South Korea:
“I worked at an electronics market, a ramshackle warren of tiny shops close to the heart of the city… The market was where I first met Mujae. I manned the customer desk and ran errands at Mr Yeo’s repair shop, while Mujae was an apprentice at a transformer workshop.”
These businesses are threatened by the demolition of the buildings in which they are housed. The first of these is knocked down with great ceremony during the novel:
“As for the way the headlines were making it seem as though the entire market had been demolished rather than just one of the five buildings, Mr Yeo claimed that the intention was to ensure a smooth passage for the final demolition by killing off business in advance.”
This emphasises the impression we have of the novel’s characters living on the margins of society, regarded as old-fashioned and past any use, rather like the electronic equipment Mr Yeo repairs, or the bulbs sold at Omusa, no longer available anywhere else.
One Hundred Shadows is also a love story of sorts, but one which refuses to be hurried. Mujae freely admits his attraction towards Eunygo, though with rather understated phrases such as “I like you.” Eunygo is, it seems, keener to hide her feelings:
“Mujae asked me why I was sweating so much. The soup’s hot, I said…”
“Are you ill?
Your face is flushed.”
Intimate moments between them involve discussing the whorls of hair on their heads, and singing songs together. They also spend a lot of time eating. Some readers may find this gentle progression frustrating but I felt the fear of commitment an accurate reflection of their uncertain futures. The threatened separation from shadows also suggests a lack, an emptiness; it’s no surprise that when they open a matryoshka (Russian) doll together, the innermost doll gets crushed.
One Hundred Shadows proceeds like a dream, a strange combination of vivid naturalism and uncertain symbolism, and is all the better for it.