Although he has authored seven full-length novels and two anthologies of poetry, Hwang Sun-won is most celebrated in Korea as a short-story writer. The main reason for this is that a writer's talent and greatness have usually been determined by his mastery of the short story, which constitutes the mainstream of Korean fiction in its relatively short history of 80 years.
Even these days, almost all Korean fiction writers begin their accredited literary career when their short stories win annual or occasional literary contests sponsored by daily newspapers or magazines. More than 95% of the novels are first serialized in various publications before they are screened for the market and chosen to be published in book form. All the newspapers in Korea run at least one daily serialized novel and critics review short stories, not novels.
In that respect, Hwang is undisputedly one of the most influential and representative writers in the Korean literary community, and it is very appropriate that Hwang is introduced to Western readers through his short stories.
The 14 short stories in "The Book of Masks" are selected from Hwang's latest (1976) anthology. For Korean readers, who have lived with Hwang's stories for half a century, this volume is like a condensed rerun of his other stories--almost 100 of them--in so many tangible ways: familiar depictions, familiar situations, familiar characters and even familiar plots. Readers are also able to witness the effects of maturity and even senescence over that long period of time on those familiar elements in vintage Hwang literature. The foreign readers without any preconceptions, on the other hand, will relish the rich flavor of the 74-year-old writer's world of Asian experience and imagination.
One encounters in "Blood," for instance, the recurring theme of innocence--or the loss to it--in childhood and nature. The study of the child in nature is an unmistakable Hwang specialty. Here a 6-year-old boy, catching honeybees with pumpkin flowers and hunting squirrels, observes nature and goes through the earliest stage of initiation.
Though Hwang reads like Saroyan at his best in his earlier stories in this vein of childhood themes, the later short works are conspicuously diluted and adulterated by the common literary symptom of aging: garrulousness. Though "Blood" is a short piece, only 13 pages long, this tale of a young child exploring his environment and the world in general digresses into superfluous descriptions of animal behavior that might go well in a Konrad Lorenz book. A more incongruous Lorenzish digression is spotted in the long description--long in proportion to the condensed form of short story--of the mating behavior of fish in "Folding the Umbrella."
Hwang's apparent attachment to the childhood theme is well evidenced in the fact that children assume important roles in his stories often, perhaps too often. In "The Weighted Tumbler," two children, one of them dead and the other a hunchback, are juxtaposed with two adults, one woman and her old estranged father-in-law, to constitute a tragic foursome, the victims of harsh life.
"Shadows of a Sound" and "In a Small Island Village" are strongly based on the recollections of the main characters' childhood, the former with a fearful sense of deja vu and the latter with a Buddhist sense of karma.
In "Nature," a quaint story debates a young man's taming his girl into submission up to the point of making her undergo an armpit glandular operation to remove her body odor. The main character finds himself at "a strange place" for no convincing plot-propelling motivation except the passing explanation that "there's something about men that makes them want sexual relief when they're restless."
Another casual encounter with a prostitute takes place in "The Curtain Fell, but Then . . . ." This encounter with a mother-prostitute who breast-feeds her 102-day-old baby is in fact so casual that it takes place on the disillusioned playwright's wandering way to his imaginary suicide. And this accidental situation leads to the whole narration of a whore's commonplace life story: a young girl getting mixed up with a married man, then abandoned by him, and trying to find an easy way to survive.
A college student makes another connection with a prostitute in "For Dear Life." This time the girl has a "husband," who tells the student, "Just buy her flesh at the going price from time to time. That'll help us a lot more than all those rallies and demonstrations." This demand is made on account of the fact that the prostitute, by mistake, picks up the student, who is wounded in a political demonstration and running for his life, and eventually helps him to safety.
The presence of these prostitutes is not totally unrelated to Hwang's tendency toward sensualism in his later works. Sometimes the erotic scenes, as in "A Numerical Enigma," "The Night He Came Late" and the vivid opening paragraphs of "Nature," are graphically descriptive.
However, the male characters often face the problems of malfunctioning libido. In "Nature," the young man "couldn't bring myself to do the act there" with the prostitute and later he experiences the same despairing lethargy when he is with his girl: " . . . and I was overwhelmed by exhaustion and seized by the awful realization that my manhood was shrinking." The playwright in "The Curtain Fell . . . " also finds that "his manhood refuses to function."
This physical impotence is usually caused by spiritual tedium. And "The Night He Came Late" is an excellent example showing how the master can make boredom interesting and even exciting for his readers. This gigolo's life story delivers an aftertaste as pungent as that of the short story, "Wings," by Yi Sang (1912-1939), who is known to the Koreans as "the genius modernist who died young." Hwang meticulously traces the ambling "routine" of the man who goes, among other places, to the zoo to watch the gorilla playing with its excrement "just to have some fun in a life which is otherwise unbearably boring."
Hwang is a versatile and prolific writer, who can handle all sorts of materials: political and realistic, symbolic and subconscious, even freaky and macabre. Sometimes on the verge of abusing his poetic license, he is at his best when he writes soft-voiced local-color stories in his terse but lingering style, most of which stories were written in his younger years. That is the reason why this collection of more recent work, for all its genuine merit, may not be the best introduction to Hwang for Western readers meeting him for the first time.