Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-Yong

When my husband gave me the birthday gift of ‘A Year of Books’ from Foyles’ I chose the translated fiction category for a variety of reasons. I love reading and travelling and having lived in several countries now, and I felt that this could continue to open my reading horizons. I’m currently living in a very small town in Norway and so translated fiction also seemed ‘safer’ as I was not able to buy very much of this from the local book shops. When my second book arrived it was clear we had chosen well. I had read some Korean literature as I had been teaching in Asia for a number of years and had taught Korean students so wanted to try and experience their experiences as much as possible. I had never read any of Hwang’s books and was embarrassed to see how prolific he was and yet I had never been exposed to his work before.

Teaching in international schools it is safe to say I have never met Koreans like the ones in this book. So there was nothing familiar about Familiar Things for me and that was what was so great about this reading experience. As someone who is starting to grapple with the accumulated detritus of modern life I read this novel with some shame and concern. Bugeye lives at the  dump (tip/refuse centre) and scrambles about the piles of rubbish salvaging items to be on-sold. This is the life of the outsider. He is outside consumer society, outside the town limits, outside our expected image of Korean families. And this is what was the most eye opening for me. In my experience, Korea was a consumer, tech-driven, rich country and so Bugeye was also outside my experience of Korea. The irony of the familiar things of the title was that nothing was familiar except the items that Bugeye and his mother scavenged from the dump; sadly I recognised those things as things that I, also, had thrown away.

This was a disturbing novel on many levels. My perceptions of Korean society were disturbed; my understanding of my own accumulation of ‘rubbish’ was disturbed; but also as a reader my need to connect to the people that I read about was disturbed. I could not put myself in Bugeye’s place; I could not put myself in his mother’s place; even as a mother myself she was not a women I had met before, in any realm. This book was not enjoyable but it was fascinating and that’s what is great about reading. To be pushed and pulled out of our comfort zones is vital if we are truly to understand the world and its many different types of inhabitants.

Hwang made me look at myself and my environment: the familiar things around me that I often don’t notice and take for granted. I loved the pieces of joy that Bugeye and Baldspot found in amongst the rubbish. This was a book of contrasts. Some incredibly joyful and witty pieces followed by some terribly sad pieces. But it is also an interesting mix of fantasy and realism – which can often be found in Korean and Japanese writing. Unlike with Murakami, however, Hwang’s fantasy is subtle and realistic. Just like any other day on the rubbish heap when the people of light join in. Maybe this is Bugeye’s way of dealing with his ‘miserable’ life; maybe this is Hwang’s way of dealing with a miserable story. Really this was the magic of realism and the realism of magic.

Either way this book was great.

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