Book Review

The Valley Nearby by Kang Sok-kyong. Translated by Choi Kyong-do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Asian Writers Series, 1997. 317 pages.

The Valley Nearby takes as its subject the emotional and intellectual trials undergone by a woman who is married to an Artist. The artist-husband, Hee-jo, is an Artist with a capital "A." He is the representative of the figure of the tortured Promethean soul who struggles to keep the pure flame of Art (again with capital "A") alive in a commercial society. The novel is set in the year of Park Chung-hee's death, deliberately, to underscore the evils inherent to an undemocratic society in search of true liberation. As such, the figure of Artist takes on the additional burden of having to provide some kind of challenge to a dictatorial regime. The populist ideology of the common folk culture is derided as overly simplistic through the numerous occasions for sermonizing provided to Hee-jo who lectures on the subject of Art and the Artist every time guests come down to visit him in his home.
Home for the Hong family, headed by Hee-jo in name, but his wife Yun-hee, in reality, is the remote country-side of Choha-ri. The rural landscape represents the Nature that eludes the lives of the fallen civilization of the city. Hee-jo drinks very heavily throughout the year, mainly because it is so hard to keep true to his ideals. Various artistic people seek him out because they respect his intense spiritual struggle to keep the pure flame of Art burning through his creation of pots that reflect the spirit of popular culture, but not in any crass or obviously ideological kind of way.
To achieve this kind of artistic integrity, Hee-jo needs to drink very heavily and to be viciously irresponsible in terms of the mundane realities of family life. To this end, Yun-hee, the wife, exerts herself as the fulcrum that centers the raging forces of society, Nature, and the artistic self-destructiveness of her husband. The children are intensely sweet and forgiving of their father. The novel takes place rather deliberately over the space of a year, beginning in mid-winter and ending with the falling of the leaves in autumn. Through her relationship with Hee-jo's spiritual mate, the female artist Han Min-wha, and numerous others who come to visit, Yun-hee demonstrates both her wide reading and her intelligence that sustain her in the face of the monumental egotism of her Artist husband. Her uneasy relationship with her mother improves through the course of this year, culminating in the gratitude she feels towards the figure of the strong mother at her mother's unexpected death in the last pages of the novel. The bond between mother and daughter grows to encompass and even overcome the uneasiness and unmitigated suffering imposed by the male figure of Genius represented in the figure of Hee-jo.
I have provided a rather simplistic summary of what is actually at times an intensely moving tale. Surprisingly moving despite the obviously schematic structure of the novel itself that rehearses the unanswerable question as to what it means to be an Artist in a world disfigured by political corruption and materialistic greed. References to the oil crisis and the political vacuum left by the death of Park Chung-hee are particularly chilling in the present context of the IMF intervention and the presidential elections of December 1997, nearly twenty years after the time in which the events of the novel take place.
The translation by Choi Kyong-do is nice in places, but leaves the reader feeling a little frustrated. Although much effort has been exerted to render a quietly poetic translation of the original, the overriding feeling is one of regret that after so much work, a little more effort would have greatly improved in improving the overall feel and texture of the English text that suffers frequently from stylistic and semantic mishaps. The most consistent fault is in the use of verb tense and aspect, undeniably one of the hardest things to master in English. In this regard, a thorough reading by a native speaker of English would have greatly eased the overall feeling of stiltedness caused by the too frequently off-putting choice of verb tense.
The tone of unsentimental and unexaggerated simplicity adopted by the translator is to be commended as appropriate for this particular work. This translation by and large does not suffer from the painful disjunction of tone and content one finds for instance in the translation of Kang So-kyong's famous novella, "A Room in the Forest", translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton in their collection entitled Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers. That particular translation is marred by the awkward incorporation of out-of-date slang to approximate the use of language by young Koreans of a particular generation. This present translation quite wisely leaves that kind of complication by the wayside, and except for the occasional "yo, dude" uttered by an incidental peasant, remains safe from charges of comic mistranslation of colloquialisms.
A few renditions were particularly grating. These included "Ringer's solution" for I.V. (intravenous) transfusion-an all too literal re-translation of the "ringeru" that remains from Japanese colonial times. Thus when Hee-jo is hospitalized from a ragingly bloody stomach ulcer that results from his chronic drinking problem, we are told that he needed bottles and bottles of "Ringer's solution." At the very least we discover the English originals of terms that have become part of the national vernacular, sometimes via colonial occupation. Similar mishaps include "Burberry coat" for "babari"-the term commonly used for raincoat, also from colonial times. In English, the label is not necessarily widely known and hence can give entirely wrong signals such as elitism and preoccupation with luxury goods. In entirely the same vein, "running shirt" simply fails to convey in English the image of the sleeveless underwear-"ranningu"-enjoyed by all Korean men even to this day. 
Some moments of awkwardness in the translation result from faulty logic created by stylistic misprisions. One such instance would be "punch'ong originated only in Korea" (86). One can find a kind of ceramic ware in several different places, but how can one kind of art be said to originate "only" in one place? The tautology irks. In another instance Yun-hee "finds the missing geese" (252), but the meaning of the original is that she discovers that the geese are missing. The slight mis-translation due to an overly literal transposition into English, results in logical mayhem.
I list these instances, far from exhaustive, because they are very characteristic of this translation. This is why the reader is left ultimately with a feeling of frustration. The effort is a worthy one, but a little more effort, and perhaps ultimately consultation with a close collaborator, would have resulted in a far more readable text. The charm of the story gets trapped in the stylistic shortcomings of a translation that reveals the difficulties of overcoming the barrier of perfecting the nuances of a second language.

The novel concludes with Yun-hee coming to a kind of peace with herself and her husband who is shown in the final pages of the novel as Artist Triumphant. Hee-jo, after many disappointments, comes out with a kiln full of pots worthy of the spirit of a great folk culture, a tribute to the national heritage of his race. His wife sees beauty in his figure, ravaged internally by over-drinking and sooty on the outside from working the fire for the kiln. The ending disappointed me somewhat because ultimately it reaffirms the glory of the male Artist who shamelessly puts his Art above the needs of his immediate family and community, paying tribute to the romanticization of male genius. But the wife's triumph through the figure of this artist-husband is nonetheless moving, perhaps because so heart-achingly childish. In the very last scene, Yun-hee is cycling along towards her husband's spiritual lover's home to establish her triumph: she has raised this Artist. Her figure on the child's bike leaves us feeling both pity and a measure of fulfillment. Art can only be born through the guts of woman-or so she likes to think. 

Julie Choi
Professor of English 
Ewha Womans University.