- By Ellie Eberlee
A Review of Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, Translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim (Archipelago Books, 2023)
“Stories,” writes Cheon Myeong-kwan near the end of his lush and sprawling Whale, “are an exploration into a life filled with injustice.” Translated from the original Korean by Chi-Young Kim and shortlisted for the 2023 International Booker Prize, Myeong-kwan’s second novel explores the unjust life of Chunhui, a 27-year-old-woman nine days out of prison for arson and mass murder she may or may not have committed.
The novel’s prologue returns Chunhui to her family’s previously thriving, now deserted brickyard outside the mountain town of Pyeongdae. There, standing in her prison uniform amid charred brick and daisy fleabane, Chunhui is wracked by memories of kilns and flames; of the workers’ palpable disdain for her mute, unwieldy body; and of the gentle companionship and brickmaking tutelage of her stepfather, Mun. Alone and directionless but bent on survival, Chunhui catches and eats a snake. In a nearby river she bathes her immense form, which—at “nearly one hundred eighty centimeters tall,” with “wide shoulders, honed by many years of labor” and “two thick, strong, oak-like legs supporting her wide trunk”—is likened to that of a water buffalo.
With this searing image established, our view shifts. The full story, our suddenly eager narrator insists, begins long ago, with a spiteful “old crone.” He speculates that “maybe this whole story is a single tale of revenge—who really knows?”
We trace the contours of the old crone’s life: her short, cruel marriage and subsequent rape of a local “halfwit” whose daughter she eventually bears; her intense dislike of that daughter, one of whose eyes she spears with a fire poker during a fit of rage; her brief romance with a lumberjack she murders after he sleeps with her now one-eyed daughter; the sale of her daughter to a travelling beekeeper for two jugs of honey. Twenty years later, the one-eyed daughter arrives at the dying crone’s bedside, protected by a menacing halo of bees. Drawn by rumors that her mother has amassed a considerable fortune yet unable to locate the money, the one-eyed daughter cracks the old crone’s skull open. She departs empty-handed.
From there, the narrator introduces us to Chunhui’s mother Geumbok, the attractive twenty-five-year-old heroine whose outsized ambitions chart much of the book’s course. The narrator recounts how, determined to leave her sleepy birth village and abusive father, Geumbok follows a traveling fishmonger to the coast. There, she sees the whale whose empyrean presence haunts not only the rest of her life, but the entire novel:
In front of her was an unbelievable sight—an enormous fish, several times larger than the house she had grown up in. It crested in the middle of the ocean and spouted a jet of water out of its back. Fishermen shouted from their boats. Overwhelmed by the appearance of this unbelievably large creature, Geumbok began to tremble, unable to close her mouth. The fish slapped the surface with its huge tail before vanishing into the water. All of this happened in the blink of an eye. Geumbok stood there for a long time, mouth agape. Was she dreaming? Geumbok asked a fisherman, who had been watching the fish nearby, what that was.
He looked at her oddly. “You must not be from around here. That was a whale. A blue whale, the biggest of all whales.”
Inspired by the apparent significance of her mammoth vision, Geumbok capitalizes on mid-century opportunities for social mobility through a series of shrewd business schemes. At once aplomb and desirous of male affirmation, Geumbok racks up a list of earnest, eccentric lovers: the fetid but kindly fishmonger; the scarred former gangster who begets Geumbok’s enduring passion for film, particularly American Westerns starring John Wayne; Mun, who scrupulously builds and operates Geumbok’s landmark brickyard in Pyeongdae; Suryeon, the retired prostitute.
Perhaps most painful of Geumbok’s attachments is her early marriage to Geokjeong, a demurring, gentle giant among horny wharf workers. The marriage’s tragic rupture compels Geumbok to leave the coast for the mountain village of Pyeongdae. Along the way she delivers Chunhui, who, despite a four-year interlude between their last intercourse and the fifteen-pound baby’s birth, Geumbok is convinced is Geokjeong’s daughter. Geumbok resents Chunhui accordingly, refusing to nurse or hold her (Whale suffers no shortage of callous mothers).
In Pyeongdae, Geumbok and Chunhui move into the old crone’s abandoned home and open a café alongside two twin circus performers and their elephant, Jumbo. Ensuing chapters unfurl a spectacular, richly imagined roll of events: the miraculous recovery of the old crone’s fortune; the revitalization of the Pyeongdae and surrounding areas following a cease fire between North and South; the effective abandonment of Chunhui by everyone but Mun and Jumbo; the return of the old crone; a curse; tycoons; anti-Communist witch hunts; multiple fires; and Geumbok’s increasingly febrile endeavors to secure power which compel the novel toward the razed brickyard of its flash-forward prologue.
In this way, Myeong-kwan’s exploration into lives filled with injustice assumes an erratic yet ultimately circular shape, like that of a long hiking loop threaded through the mountainous South Korean landscape. Guided by a narrator deeply familiar with the route, we are often shepherded along intriguing side paths or apparent short cuts, only to double back after fleeting glimpses of future terrain. The narrative voice oscillates between wry insight and tender resignation, lapsing periodically into metatextual commentary on the art and value of storytelling.
These folksy, self-reflexive digressions typically precede or follow the narrative’s more fantastical developments. Magical realism has proliferated in East Asian and Korean storytelling over the past several decades (see, for example, the work of Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Paul Yoon, and Stephane Mot). Like many of its contemporary counterparts, Whale deploys elements of the surreal or absurd in simultaneous critique of older, repressive traditions and the coldly capitalist epistemologies imposed by “rational” Westerners.
Arguably, no character embodies this double-edged critique more than Geumbok. Her preternatural business acumen scrapes up against an obsession with omens, curses, and prophecy; the tension culminates in her doomed construction of the titular whale-shaped movie theatre. Myeong-kwan highlights additional friction between Eastern and Western values through frequent allusion to a wide-ranging set of occasionally self-contradictory and nonsensical “laws”: “this was the law of love,” the narrator declares of Geumbok’s seemingly inexplicable attraction to Geokjeong, and he goes on to identify many other laws—including those “of gravity,” “of obesity,” “of dictatorship,” “of harpoons,” “of slogans,” “of ennui,” and “of plot, which caters to crass commercialism”—as the narrative unfolds.
Myeong-kwan appears especially attuned to injustices which befall his female characters. For all of the cruelty many of his principal women demonstrate, each merits some degree of pity: the old crone, divorced for no reason other than that she was “unspeakably ugly”; her one-eyed daughter, valued at two jugs of honey; Geumbok, who, “when she saw the blue whale from the beach . . . glimpsed what eternal life looked life” and destroys herself in pursuit of that unattainable ideal; and Chunhui, whose inherited body “imprisoned her as if by divine punishment, [in] flesh that had never been loved and couldn’t be shed.”
The indelible poignancy of these women’s experiences owes itself to Myeong-kwan’s exquisite prose, skillfully translated by Chi-Young Kim. The writer constructs characters with tragicomic precision. Settings are rendered in similarly scrupulous detail; individual lines exhibit evident pleasure in their writing. Still, Whale does not overstay its welcome. In its brisk handling of large swaths of time and geography, Myeong-kwan’s storytelling evokes the mastery of Gabriel García Márquez—whose presence suffuses everything from the story’s deft incorporation of magical realism to its capacious assemblage of intergenerational experience. Put another way: there’s a breathtaking amount of story here, replete with surrealist undercurrents and the colors, smells, and textures of everyday Korean life.
The result? Awe; hearts at once full and broken. But this, it seems, is the law of reading.
ELLIE EBERLEE holds her Master’s in English Literature from the University of Oxford and is currently undertaking her Publishing and Editorial Certification at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. A native of Toronto, she has worked for Oxford University Press and interned with Harper’s Magazine and the New England Review. Her essays and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Guernica, the Rumpus, the Literary Review of Canada, and The Chicago Review of Books, among other venues.