Monday, May 29, 2023

Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan

"Geumbok let out a long stream of smoke and continued. 'People say that money is the root of all evil. But that’s not true. Poverty is the root of all evil.'” (Myeong-Kwan, Cheon. Whale, p. 242). 

Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan was short-listed for the Booker Prize, so I decided to read it. What a strange book! It reads like a fable, but with far more characters and events than most fables that I know, and with a great deal of political content, like the quote above. I didn't find many reviews, but one of them called it magical-realism comparable to Borges. Maybe so. But also a lot of social commentary.

As I read Whale, I kept thinking that it must be an allegory for 20th century Korean history, but I don't know any Korean  history so I couldn't follow what it was about. I felt lost by the parallels I thought I should find, for example in the characters' love of American movies, especially westerns with John Wayne. But there were other things that made the novel readable anyway. The author constantly telegraphs the coming events and disasters that the characters will be suffering, which is also a bit challenging to read.

Whale is full of vivid characters. In some ways, it's too vivid, and there are too many characters. It's bewildering at times, though eventually I think I grasped who they were and how they related to one another. Very poetic passages describe the inner life of characters -- for example, man who loses his vision because of cataracts:

"Though he couldn’t see, memories would often unspool panoramically before him, without any order. It was like looking through a photo album that had recorded his life, from his earliest memory to just before he lost his eyesight. He saw beautiful and peaceful scenes from his childhood, terrible suffering from the battlefield, unfamiliar, foreign sights from when he worked at a brickyard in China, the faces of his family that broke his heart every time, himself making love with Geumbok under the willow tree, the lonely long winters when he stayed at Nambaran all alone—all the joys and sorrows of his life" (Whale, p. 233). 

Whale seems to cover social history, but I was never sure because I'm unfamiliar with the history of Korea. Here's an example:one of the central characters, Geumbok, first tries coffee, which seems to her to be a type of tea. This encounter led her to love to drink coffee, and eventually to make a lot of money running a café. 

"One day, the man with the scar took Geumbok to a café next to the theater. He ordered tea that was arrowroot-black. She took a sip and spat it out immediately; it was too bitter. 

"'What is this?' 

""This is coffee. If it’s too bitter you can put some sugar in it. Like this.' 

"He smiled. It wasn’t too bad once she sweetened it. It was fairly delicious, actually, and after a few sips she fell in love with the taste of coffee. The bitterness that spread on the tip of her tongue and dissipated as it left behind a clean, lingering flavor, the scent that seemed to contain an elegant secret in its sourness—she was reminded of the smell of the wind that blew from the south long ago as she sat on the hill in her hometown.

"From then on she went frequently to the café for coffee. She wondered what it was made of to give the drink such a mysterious taste, and soon learned it came from beans that looked like grains of barley but were as large as peas." (Whale, pp. 85-86).

Whale is also a very brutal book, full of extreme cruelty and torture, especially during the long time when an important character named Chunhui (Geumbok's daughter) is in prison. Giving too much detail (as far as I'm concerned), the author depicts the unspeakable actions of a vicious prison guard and some of the other prisoners. Chunhui is mute, and unable to understand what is happening to her. Several brutal murders and other types of abuse are also part of the plot. This cruelty may be an essential element of the allegory except that I don't know what the allegory is about.

Despite all my doubts and confusions, I got to like the narrative of this novel, and eventually felt that the very strange characters (ALL of them strange) were reasonably relatable. There's Chunhui, a huge woman who can't speak a human language but can communicate with an elephant named Jumbo? OK. There are a couple of entrepreneurs who become rich and meet their fates in very odd ways? OK. There are a pair of twins who exchange identities so much that they don't know which one is the elder and which one is the younger? OK. And more, of course.

The author also has a particular quirk, which I got used to, and eventually liked: he summarizes a situation by saying "this was the law of..." For example: "Taciturn John Wayne calmly killed the Indians one by one, who collapsed like deer. This was the law of Westerns." (Whale, pp. 87-88).

It takes a long time for the essential nature of this novel to emerge, but ultimately, I felt like it was worth the effort it took me to read it.

Review © 2023 mae sander
Shared with Elizabeth's weekly celebration of things to drink


Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

This is a very sad and unusual book review. I enjoyed the coffee scene I could actually envision, but not the rest. It felt a bit "out there" to me. And the John Wayne quote just showed how little the author actually knew about the movies during that time. Thank you, as always for sharing an extremely different and unique take on T this week, dear Mae. I can always count on you for something totally different for T Tuesday!

anno said...

Reading translated works is a lot like traveling to a strange country where all the rules and expectations you might have about what constitutes a story and how people might act in certain situations can be wildly challenged. Like Elizabeth, I enjoyed the cafe scene you described; but like her, too, I'm not likely to pick this one up until I feel ready to take on the brutality you've mentioned. FWIW, I'm always interested in the books you have been reading.... even (maybe especially) when they are not something I'm likely to pick up anytime soon.

Also... when you mentioned the author's "quirk," I was reminded of Sir Richard Burton's translation of the Arabian Nights, where, whenever a character died or was killed in the course of one of the tales, the narrator inevitably dismissed the event with, "So much for him."

Valerie-Jael said...

What a strange book, I am not sure I want to read it, but at the same time it's fascinating. And the coffee story is good. Happy T Day! Valerie

My name is Erika. said...

I think I'll skip this based on your review. But to be nominated for a prize, it must be well written or make some important point. But I still enjoyed reading about this book; I'd just like to know why it was nominated. Happy T Day. hugs-Erika

Kate Yetter said...

I can't say this book would be of interest, but sometimes it is good to venture out of our comfort zones with different genres. Thanks you for sharing.
Happy Tea Day,

nwilliams6 said...

Sounds like a brave read, Mae. I probably couldnt have finished it although I finished several difficult to read novels recently (neither was deep). Love the part about coffee. I still remember my first cup full of milk and sugar - yum (can't drink it that way now though). Happy T-day and hugz

Lisca said...

I admire you that you tried and persisted. I would have long given up. For some people the Booker prize nomination is a recommendation but I then continue to avoid these books as often they are strange.
Very appropriate to pick the 'coffee scene' for the T-Party.
Happy T-Day,

Lisca said...

Just to add to my previous comment: The book I mentioned is called Daughters of the Dragon by William Andrews. It's about a Korean girl who was adopted in the USA and who goes to Korea to find out more about her birth family. In it the history of Korea unfolds. I found it very interesting as, like you, I knew nothing of Korean history.

J said...

Mae I couldn't read that book but I thought it was interesting reading about the first taste of coffee.
Happy T Day
Jan S

eileeninmd said...


Thanks for the review, it sounds like a strange book. I will be skipping it.
Take care, enjoy your day and the week ahead.

Iris Flavia said...

Coffee is too bitter for my stomach, sadly.
We´ve visited some prisons in Australia (museums now). I had the dumb idea to tell Ingo that Freo offers a night tour. I´ve seen it in daylight, with a guide. I don´t know I really should go at night, I think that´s too creepy.
The book sounds indeed confusing, The money-saying is true, I think...

Divers and Sundry said...

I used to follow the Booker Prize :) This book sounds fascinating. Thanks!

Happy T Tuesday

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I've been thinking about reading this one, Mae, and now, after reading your review, I am adding it to my summer reading list.

I like books that surprise me, even if I'm not terribly sure what's going on.

Jenn Jilks said...

I hear you about the gruesome details. I tend to avoid those.

CJ Kennedy said...

I don't think this book is my cup of tea

CJ Kennedy said...

Oops, Happy T Day

Helen's Book Blog said...

It's tough to read a book that includes a lot of political/social commentary when we don't know the history.

Sharon Madson said...

Thank you for the review or synopsis of the book. I had heard of it, but don't know where. The characters you describe sound interesting. What was said about John Wayne and Westerns was interesting, too. I really feel weird that I watched all those Westerns as a child and didn't realize how horrible it must be for Indians to see them. What were we all thinking back then? As far as the Myeong-Kwan, Cheon quote, he says "people say" but what the "Bible" actually says is "The root of all evil is the -love- of money." I Timothy 6:10

Great post. Happy t day.

Empire of the Cat said...

Well that does sound like a very bizarre reading experience Mae lol. My dad watched a lot of westerns but I was always on the side of the Indians. Happy T Day! Elle/EOTC xx