In his epoch-making short story, “Seoul: Winter 1964,” novelist Kim Seung-ok brilliantly renders the bleak landscape of Seoul in the mid-Sixties when Koreans had to suffer the ruthless military dictatorship and dehumanization caused by rapid industrialization.
At that time, people had to struggle with a suffocating reality every day, embedded with tyranny and poverty. So people liked to drop by a street liquor stall, warming up their bodies with alcohol, and tried to forget their miserable predicament by being drunk.
“Anyone who spent the winter of 1964 in Seoul,” begins the story with Peter H. Lee’s superb translation, “is probably familiar with those wine shops that appeared on the streets at nightfall, those stalls where one stepped off a freezing, wind-swept street by pushing aside a flapping curtain inside, while the elongated flame of a carbide lantern danced in the wind.”
Kim Seung-ok’s story begins at one of the solitary street liquor stalls on a cold winter night in the inhumane city. A 25-year-old young man named Kim encounters a 26-year-old graduate student named Ahn and a 36-year-old door-to-door book salesman whose name is not revealed. These three are all failures in their own way. For example, the protagonist has failed in entering the Military Academy, which is the fastest and surest way of climbing up the ladder of social ascension during the military tyranny. The bespectacled graduate student, who majors in a dubious academic field, seems to be at a loss and uncertain about his future. The nameless, poor book salesman despairs because his wife has just died of acute meningitis and he had to sell her cadaver to the hospital for money.
All the three characters are symbolic figures who reflect the desolate social landscape of Korea in the 1960s. For instance, the narrator represents the frustrated young people who are denied opportunities for leading a successful life in that turbulent era. The bespectacled graduate student presumably symbolizes weak, timid intellectuals of Korean society at the time, who have to face a fuzzy, nebulous future. Meanwhile, the 36-year-old bookseller obviously is an emblem of middle-aged failures who are deprived of their precious things, symbolized by his dead wife.
Roaming about the cold winter night streets of Seoul, the three wanderers see two advertisements: a medicine ad and a liquor ad. The protagonist Kim narrates, “A pretty girl beamed a lonely smile from a medicine advertisement stuck on a telephone poll and seemed to say, ‘It’s cold up here, but what can I do?’ A neon sign advertising liquor flashed incessantly on top of a building.” This passage tells us that in the winter of 1964 in Seoul, no medicine could heal the psychological wounds of the people and liquor, too, could not make them oblivious of their miserable plight either.
While reading this superb short story, it occurred to me that perhaps the author Kim Seung-ok should write a sequel entitled, “Seoul: Winter 2019” set in today’s Korea. Then, a question arose: “If he would write a sequel, how would he delineate the same city Seoul in 2019?” Perhaps, he would still perceive Seoul as a cold, inhumane place and a bleak, grim city, just as it was in 1964, even though the era of military rule and industrialization is over now.
Indeed, in Seoul these days, there are many frustrated young people like Kim in the story, who have failed in entering prime universities due to the lack of lustrous specs and therefore are denied opportunities to climb up the ladder of success in Korean society. Just like Kim, quite a few young people today have given up so many precious things already, such as finding a decent job, getting married, having children, purchasing a house, and so on.
Also, there are a host of college and graduate students who, like bespectacled Ahn, are confused and face an uncertain future. Especially, if your major is the humanities these days, your chance of getting a job is undoubtedly very slim. Intellectuals, too, suffer from a sense of inertia and helplessness, unable to do anything at a time when the nation is experiencing unprecedented socio-political turmoil, economic recession and diplomatic crises.
Today in Korean society, we also have many people like the nameless book salesman in the story, who have been deprived of their most precious thing, and yet who cannot get anything from the society that is indebted to him. For example, people who run a small business are now going out of business and blame the government for its ill-advised minimum wage policy, that has shattered their dreams of success.
Fifty-five years have passed since 1964. Yet the streets of Seoul are still cold and bleak, suffering from social disruptions and political demonstrations. At the end of “Seoul: Winter 1964,” the book salesman commits suicide, the narrator boards a bus without a destination and the graduate student is “standing in the falling snow, deep in thought.” In “Seoul: Winter 2019,” I only hope it could have a better ending.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University. -- Ed.