Reviewed by Anushka Ray
Title: The Scorpion (Trans)
Author: Kim Won-il
Publisher: Kitaab International, Singapore
There is a throbbing ache of subdued anger throughout The Scorpion, an ever-present bitterness, which seeps through the most deadpan of narration and into the hearts of the readers. The Scorpion by Kim Won-il finds its footing with this: a constant pragmatic voice, but full of resentment, to emphasize the loss of desire to romanticize the world in which these characters find themselves.
The novel follows Kang Jae-pil, his father Kang Cheon-dong and, briefly, his father’s father Kang Chi-mu, as each man navigates the tension he faces in Korean society. Each alternate chapter adopts a different perspective as a way to seamlessly and organically transition between timelines and generations. We venture into the narrator Jae-pil’s thoughts and feelings as he grapples with life right out of prison. Kang Jae-pil’s matter of fact observations are riddled and tangled with acute detail, giving way to a man who perhaps has deep sensitivities, a startling recognition of guilt and gratitude for the family he let down. Jae-pil’s meetings with his step-sister Myeong-hee (who holds greater importance as the story continues) as well as his grandmother, excel in showcasing glittering remnants of humanity that he holds onto despite his seven years in prison.
Jae-pil vows to leave behind his gangster lifestyle in Seoul as he travels to meet his family and eventually begins writing his deceased grandfather’s biography as a way to show his respect and perhaps as a way for him to move on from the years he spent behind bars. His story is by far the most engaging, largely attributable to the first person narration, a man who feels regret and has potential. Won-il travels in time through flashbacks and dialogue to explore Jae-pil’s perilous journey and brings alive the Korean society as it morphs through the ages. As the novel unfolds, Won-il seems to gain in confidence and fluidity with Jae-pil’s character and begins to introduce more graceful description of the beauty found in nature. Despite this, at its core the story remains dark – Jae-pil is haunted by vices, much like his father was; we find ourselves screaming at him to resist his temptations when he begins turning to drinking and crime. While the lack in build up does not prepare us for this, it’s not surprising in the context of the character’s past. Regardless of this, Jae-pil stays the most likeable man of the three.
It is through Kang Cheon-dong (Jae-pil and Myeong-hee’s father) that pieces of Jae-pil’s story begin to make sense. Introduced to the reader with the rape of his soon-to-be wife, Kang Cheon-dong has a more haunting story. Jae-pil grows through his story; Cheon-dong progresses to become more and more loathsome. The women in his life show strength and resilience as opposed to the men (a common theme throughout the novel). Myeong-hee and Jae-pil’s mother Gaetteol-dek are beaten at every opportunity not only by Cheon-dong but by their society; yet, they continue fighting, creating a toxic and addictive storyline, hoping for victory but faced with hardship instead.
Kang Cheon-dong’s story reflects an older Korea, where tradition and custom prevented growth. He is forced to abandon his first son and faces the stigma of being an unemployed disabled man, turning him into a cruel father and husband. He represents the common Korean who grew up witnessing the bloodshed of the 1950 Korean War, turning to violence to promote his strength and quick to reject any weaknesses. Won-il’s depiction of poverty is achingly honest, with moments such as Cheon-dong’s wife using her accumulated savings intended for her wedding for a bowl of soup. The blasé attitude Gaetteol-dek adopts is harrowing, especially when paired with Won-il’s excruciating details of their destitution and of Cheon-dong’s moral repugnance. Kang Jae-pil seems to represent modernity; repeatedly, he references how everything from his childhood is destroyed and hidden below skyscrapers. The difference between Seoul and the countryside is further highlighted through Jae-pil’s observations on Korea, a sly metaphor for how the Korean government focuses on a minority of their country as opposed to the entire nation. Cheon-dong tells a tale of surrender through an emotional deterioration, and Jae-pil demonstrates being forced into a life of crime, but they complement one another to reiterate the same message: poverty in Korea remains prevalent throughout the years, despite the sugar-coated industrialization and focus on wealth.
The multiple plots are woven into a compelling reflection of Korean society’s attitude towards disabilities and poverty. Won-il’s fierce navigation of feelings – be it of rage, passion or misery – paired with his ability to construct an intriguing crime novel makes for a layered narrative with nuanced characters; we might not be able to forgive them quite easily but we could definitely understand them in their context. It is his portrayal of the painful aspect of Korea’s growth, the continuous, relentless grief which torments the characters across generations that sets this novel apart from the rest.