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9 May

Review: My Wife Got Married – Today’s entry was delayed far longer than I expected. I had actually hoped to write this entry over a week ago, but upgrading my computer and the attendant headaches took up most of my free time since last Saturday. This past weekend was also something of a holiday weekend, with Children’s Day on Friday (overlapping Buddha’s birthday) and Parent’s Day (yeah, kids get a whole day to themselves, but Mom and Pop have to share a day—how is that fair?) was yesterday, so the weekend was overrun by visiting relatives. Not that this is a bad thing, but it made it difficult to get anything done in the way of journal writing.

“...the author has obviously taken great pains to think his story all the way through and he ends up with a fairly plausible account of a woman who is married to two men at once.”

Today, though, I am finally writing about a book I recently read: Bak Hyeonok’s Anaega gyeolhonhaetda. I usually don’t put Korean language titles or terms first, but there is a bit of a problem with the translation of this title. Literally, it means “wife got married,” as there is no article or possessive. If you know any Korean, you’re probably thinking, “well, Korean doesn’t have articles per se, and possessives can be and are often omitted.” And you would be right. But the title itself is the book’s first challenge to conventional wisdom concerning love, sex, and marriage. “Wife,” both in Korean and in English, is a term used to describe a woman who is already married, so the sentence poses a logical problem. The book’s brief opening elaborates:

(The) wife got married. This is all.

I am not her friend. I am not a member of her maiden family either. Nor am I her ex-husband. I am undeniably her current husband. What I truly cannot bear is that she knows this better than anyone.

My life has become a mess.

So now we can read the title as My Wife Got Married. When I first picked up the book I thought, “Well, that pretty much gives everything away from the start, doesn’t it?” But the appeal of this book is not in its plot twists (there are none to speak of), but in how it challenges traditional notions. That’s why I don’t feel bad about talking freely about the plot of this book, although I should state right now that some of the things I’m going to talk about from here on out (i.e., namely plot points) are technically “spoilers.”

The book’s plot can be summed up fairly easily: the narrator, a typical salary man, meets and falls in love with a woman who believes in “free love.” This woman is open about her convictions from the very beginning, and the narrator sets out on a quest to “monopolize” her. The narrator’s friend, a gigolo himself, says that the only way to do this is to marry her. The narrator manages to get the woman to marry him, but only after she makes him promise to take “gypsy vows,” that is, that they will only stay together as long as their love lasts—she’ll have none of this “’til death do we part” nonsense. The narrator gladly agrees, considering it a minor concession in return for sole ownership of her.

Nothing changes after they get married, though. The woman works as a freelance programmer, and her jobs take her around the country, turning them into a “weekend husband and wife.” During one of her jobs she falls in love with another man, and she eventually decides to marry him. Unable to dissuade her, the narrator’s only recourse is to divorce her, but he can’t bring himself to go through with it—despite the pain she causes him, he can’t live without her. The rest of the books deals with the narrator’s reaction to and attempts to get rid of the “hanger-on.” The story ends when he agrees to move overseas with his wife and her second husband, begrudgingly admitting to the reader that he may never succeed in getting rid of the unwanted third wheel.

There’s more to the book than this, though. While it may seem to be a simple love-triangle story, it is dressed in rather unusual clothing. The narrator and the woman he loves are both avid football (soccer) fans—he supports Real Madrid, she supports FC Barcelona. This love of the sport is what originally brings them together, and throughout the story the narrator uses football to illustrate and explain what is happening to him. This might sound a little odd, but it works surprisingly well, especially if you happen to like football (as I do). Rather than try to explain how it works, I’ll translate a passage that illustrates the concept. When the narrator protests his wife’s proposed second marriage, she tells him that she still loves him and wants to be with him, but if he can’t accept her marrying again then they have no choice but to get a divorce. She tosses the ball into his court by saying, “I’ll do whatever you want to do.” The following is an excerpt from the narrator’s interior monologue in response.

She’ll do whatever I want to do? You can’t say something like that in a situation like this.

Let’s take an example. ...if (the football federation) were to say to a coach, whose life depends on his position, “We have two goalkeepers, and you must have both goalkeepers defending the goal at one time. If you don’t like that, you can resign. Do whatever you like as long as you bear this in mind. We’ll do whatever you want to do,” is there any coach in the world who will reply, “I understand. The position of coach is very important to me, so I will do as I please while playing two goalkeepers at once”?

Very few chapters go by without some reference to football. Sometimes the author will spend an entire chapter (chapters are usually only a few pages long, maybe five or six at the longest) or section discussing some aspect of the sport or one of its players, and then at the very end add a little line in which the narrator explain how his situation is just like that. And it works. At first I found these seemingly sudden departures from the storyline jarring, but when the comparison is made it is a big “Aha!” moment. The technique does a lot to convey the mindset of the narrator, and I soon learned to appreciate it.

Of course, the story isn’t really about football. Football is used very effectively to illustrate the story, but the story itself is about the social concepts of love, sex, and marriage. In part it examines the double standard to which men and women are held. In Korea, it was quite common until fairly recently for men of means to have concubines or wives in addition to their first wives (I say “men of means” because poorer individuals usually couldn’t afford the financial burden of a second wife or concubine). And even after taking concubines and second wives became illegal, it was still socially acceptable for men to cheat on their wives, while the wives were forced to grin and bear it. In fact, one of the side effects of the recent liberalization (relatively speaking, of course) of women is that some “grandmothers” are now divorcing their elderly husbands after having put up with a lifetime of crap. Not all of that crap is necessarily infidelity, but I’m sure it plays a part.

My Wife Got Married, though, turns the paradigm on its head. Not only is the female protagonist a liberated New Woman (yes, I know that’s an archaic term now, but somehow it seems to ring true again), but she ends up having two husbands. The book directly addresses the double standard in the story of the narrator’s friend (the same friend who advised the narrator to marry his love to tame her). After sewing his own wild oats to his heart’s content, he marries a nice Catholic woman. Yet he is shocked when he later discovers that his wife is having an affair. Despite his own gigolo tendencies, he cannot accept the fact that his wife was unfaithful to him and eventually divorces her. In the end, though, he realizes that he doesn’t want anyone else and they remarry.

What makes the book interesting, though, is how realistic it is. It is by no means a fantasy—the author has obviously taken great pains to think his story all the way through and he ends up with a fairly plausible account of a woman who is married to two men at once. And it is, in part, this reality that helps underscore his point about preconceived social notions and double standards. In the past, the only thing that limited the number of wives or concubines a man could have was his wealth and power. In My Wife Got Married, though, the woman has to take care of two households, not to mention hold down a job. She lives with her second husband during the week, and on the weekends she rushes up to Seoul to take care of the narrator and clean up the house that he has managed to destroy during the week. When he asks her at one point if she would ever consider taking a third husband, she basically says that it would be physically impossible for her to do so. No matter how liberated she might be, she still has to play the role of the diligent housewife (houseswife?).

Their ultimate decision to leave Korea (for the more liberal climes of New Zealand) is also quite realistic and the inevitable conclusion of the story. After the woman gets pregnant and gives birth to a daughter (we never learn for sure whose daughter it is, although the narrator becomes convinced that it is his), things grow even more complicated. The narrator sees this as a way to get rid of the interloper, arguing that their daughter is going to be awfully confused when she gets old enough to understand what is going on. His wife and her second husband argue that she will see it as natural if that is the way she is raised, but the narrator rightly points out that she is going to have friends and acquaintances who will show her otherwise. In the end, no matter what they may decide amongst themselves, there is a limit to what Korean society will accept, and that limit stops far short of recognizing two fathers for a child. Of course, the second marriage was never a legal marriage from the start, and the addition of a child pushes them closer toward one of two ends: dissolve one of the marriages (the narrator obviously hopes it will be the second) or leave the country.

This only scratches the surface of what is in this book, of course, but maybe it will be enough to whet the appetites of those of my readers versed in Korean and looking for a good novel to read. And maybe it will serve as a glimpse into the contemporary Korean literary scene even for those who do not read Korean.

I’d like to wrap up this entry with two peripheral observations. The first is just something that I found interesting, if not a bit odd. There was a book signing at the Kyobo Book Centre not long after I bought the book, and I went to get my book signed by the author. When we got there, though, I was surprised to see that they were handing out coupons for a free copy of the book at the door. The way it worked was you went and got a free copy of the book and then stood in line to get it signed. I’ve never been to a book signing before, so I have no idea how these things worked, but it seemed an odd way to do things. Never mind the fact that the book store has to absorb the cost of all those books—does the author still get his royalties?—what this meant was that very few people who got their book signed that day had even read the first page. I just think that’s strange.

Granted, I hadn’t read the book through yet by that time, but I had read about a third of it. I was looking forward to a brief exchange with the author—at the very least, I hoped to be able to tell him that I was enjoying the book so far. But there was no communication at all between signer and signees. While we waited in line a book store employee gave us slips of paper and told us to write our names on them. Then we put the slips of paper inside the front cover of our books. Another employee collected these and conveyed them one at a time to the author for signing. All of this was done in complete silence, so I didn’t dare open my mouth when my turn came. The author scribbled my name, the date, a brief note—“Be healthy and happy”—and then signed his name and handed the book to me with a smile and a nod, and that was it. My turn was over, and I walked away feeling somewhat dazed. I know this doesn’t really relate to the book directly, but it is part of my overall experience, so I figured I’d mention it.

The second thing I wanted to mention is somewhat more directly related to the book. My Wife Got Married was awarded the second Segye Literature Award, presented by the Segye Times (Korean-language link) newspaper. It is a good book, and I think it is deserving of a literary award, but I found it interesting that this award was given by the Segye Times. If you’re outside of Korea you may not be aware of this, but the Segye Times is run by the Unification Church (commonly known in the States as the “Moonies,” after the founder, Mun Seonmyeong (Sun Myung Moon), who believes he has been personally called to complete the mission of Christ on earth, among other things). The Unification Church is well-known for their “mass marriages,” and they certainly have a non-traditional way of looking at the Christian faith and the concept of the family, so I suppose it is no surprise that they would endorse this book (which is what the literature prize amounts to, really). Like I said, I don’t want to take anything away from the book itself, which I enjoyed, but it’s an interesting footnote that might otherwise be overlooked.

That’s all for today. I’ll have more to talk about perhaps later this week or over the weekend, and I will also be reviewing another book, maybe sometime next week. Now that the computer is behaving I hope to get back to a more regular (for me, at least) schedule here at Liminality.

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