Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Butterfly Core


Even if I were to die in an accident
You shouldn't feel relieved
I'll return as a ghost
To call out your name
"Tell Me Farewell" (Togawa Jun)

This is basically the first review I've written in two months, but because of Convenient Backlog in To-Be-Posted Reviews, you'll never notice it.

Arang is one of the most famous figures in Korean folklore. Arang was the daughter of the magistrate of Miryang during the Joseon dynasty. The servant Baekga conspired together wth Arang's nanny to kidnap and rape her, but Arang's heavy resistance to Baekga left him no option than to kill the girl. Arang's father thought her daughter had eloped, and he had to resign from his position. New magistrates were appointed to Miryang, but they all died a mysterious death, until Yi Sang-sa was made magistrate. Arang's ghost told Yi Sang-sa the truth behind her death and the following day Yi had Baekga arrested and executed, thus pacifiying Arang's spirit. At least, that is how one version of the legend goes. In Kim Young-ha's Arang-un Wae ("Arang, Why?", 2001) the narrator plans to write a modern version of the tale of Arang, but because he wants to come up with something nobody has written before, he first needs to take a look at the many versions of the Arang tale that have come in existence in the many centuries since it was first told. And as he goes through the material, he finds a possible new answer to the tale of who killed Arang.

Kim Young-ha is a well-received Korean novelist (not specifically a mystery writer), who has also been succesful outside of his home-country; several of his novels are available in English and other languages like German and Dutch. Arang-un Wae is not one of those novels available in English though and as my proficiency in Korean is still almost surprisingly bad, I opted to read the Japanese translation of the book (titled Arang wa Naze). This is the first time I've read a novel by Kim by the way, but one look at the summary was enough to lure me in, as I love folklore and interpretations of it.

Arang-un Wae is a very tricky novel. The Japanese version uses the term historical mystery to promote the book, but only part of the book is. The book is a very meta-concious novel and the story develops at three distinct levels (the chapters themselves jump between these levels constantly). First is the narrator level: here we follow an unnamed narrator who is basically performing background research for his own, modern version of the Arang legend. These chapters introduce the reader to various versions of the Arang legend through historical sources and by comparing them, the narrator raises questions about the 'truth' behind the Arang legend. The narrator hopes to find a new interpretation of the legend, to form the basis of his modern version. The literary detection going on in these chapters is really fun, as you slowly delve deeper into the Arang folklore and start to see differences and similarities between the many versions of the tale. Some decent historical research is done here and even if you're not familiar with the legend of Arang, you're sure to become an Expert in no-time.

The second level is what you might call the proper historical mystery part of the novel. This part is set right after the events in the legend of Arang and has a new detective character figure out the real truth behind the Arang murder. This part is based on the historical research done by the narrator, addressing and answering questions raised during the narrator's background research. It's here where fiction meets historic events, as the narrator skillfully blends the literary research of the first level, with his own imagination in order to come up with his own interesting version of the Arang legend. If the first level is 'normal' historical research of an old mystery, like Jack the Ripper research, then this second level is a fictionalized version of an answer to the mystery. It's still based on actual research, but obviously written as a story, rather than as the conclusion of research. It's not a puzzle plot mystery, but it's certainly amusing to see how the narrator (=Kim Young-ha) used all the various facts he dug up about Arang to carve his own version of the centuries-old tale.

The last level is one I personally thought was the least interesting. These chapters follow a translator in modern-day Seoul as he reminisces on a woman he once lived together with (his "Arang"). To me, this section doesn't really add to the experience. The first two levels interact with each other in an obvious way ("research" -> "practice"), but this modern-day reimagination of the Arang legend lacks meaningful ties to the original legend. Sure, it's original in the sense that it focuses more on the thoughts of the characters in the legend, rather than the Bloody Murder!-angle, but this section just feels too detached from the rest of the book, even though it's supposed to be the main dish (as the literary research and the new solution to the Arang murder mystery were all done to facilitate the writing of this modern-day version!).

The meta-approach jumping between several narrative levels is something that kinda reminds of Dogura Magura, in a much more sane-and-easier-to-understand way. Arang-un Wae is certainly not a straightforward novel and I can understand why most reviews I read, have some (or a lot of) reservations about it. For some, the historical mystery is interesting, but the modern-day reimagination is boring. For others, the modern-day reimagination is captivating, but the literary research boring. The constantly jumping between narrative levels is something I didn't really mind, but as the novel goes in all kinds of directions, I think that most people will find both elements they like and don't like. Personally, I loved the literary research segments. Similar to the youkai segments in Kyougoku Natsuhiko novels, you learn a great deal about history and folklore, but there's also the sense of mystery and the fun of literary detection as you dive deeper in the material.

Arang-un Wae is not a perfect novel, but as a novel that explores a famous tale in Korean folklore in depth, I thought it was really interesting. It's not a straight mystery novel, nor a real literary research, nor a modern novel: the end-product of the mix might or might not appeal to you (to variying degrees), but it's definitely an unique take on both the subject as well as the form.

Original Korean title(s): 김영하 《아랑은 왜》. Japanese version: 金英夏  『阿娘はなぜ』


  1. This one sounds very interesting. I assume there is no English translation though.

    1. There isn't as far as I know, but like I pointed out, quite a few of his novels are available in English, so perhaps in the future?