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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Specters of Algeria

Hwang Yeo Jung

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Title: The Specters of Algeria
Author: Hwang Yeo Jung
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 165 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Specters of Algeria - US
The Specters of Algeria - UK
The Specters of Algeria - Canada
directly from: Honford Star
  • Korean title: 알제리의 유령들
  • Translated by Yewon Jung

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Our Assessment:

B+ : strange and haunting; well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Specters of Algeria is divided into four parts, the first three each narrated by a different character -- telling 'Yul's Story', 'Cheolsu's Story', and 'Osu's Story' -- and the concluding one then telling: 'The Remaining Story'. The title refers to two works that feature in the novel: a play attributed to Karl Marx (in which, in fact, one of the characters is himself: "writing something called The Specters of Algeria"), and then, as we learn in the final section, a novel that one of the characters writes based on the lives of some of the others and those around them (essentially the one we are reading). The one who wrote the novel 'The Specters of Algeria' worries that "some parts vary too much from the facts", but The Specters of Algeria is, among other things, an exercise is recalling and figuring out the past. As one of the characters sums up, about this and all stories:

     Every story is a mixture of truth and lies. Even when people see and hear the same thing at the same place, they each recollect it differently. Sometimes, even what you hear and see and experience for yourself isn't true, or you just don't remember it correctly. Sometimes a lie turns into the truth, when someone believes it to be true. They could've been deceived, or they could've just believed it; they could've let themselves be deceived, or they could've wanted to be deceived. There's simply a number of possibilities. It's something you can't judge in the first place.
       The play 'The Specters of Algeria' exists, but is also a prank of sorts -- and its attribution to Karl Marx got those involved with it in trouble in 1984, a time when South Korea was still essentially ruled by the military (the Fifth Republic). As Tak Osu, one of those detained at the time, explains about the authorities:
     What was true or not didn't matter to them. Or I should say, the facts were predetermined. It wouldn't have made an ounce of difference if The Specters of Algeria had never existed in the first place.
       The novel circles slowly to the revelations of the nature of what happened and who was involved, with the first two parts narrated by Yul and Cheolsu, both a generation younger than those with those experiences. The first part is narrated by Yul, recalling a childhood that included her father burning all the books in their house, even her school textbooks. Some trauma clearly affected him:
     My Dad was afraid of paper. At first he was afraid of books, then he was afraid of paper with words written on it; in the end he grew afraid of paper itself.
       Her parents and those of her friend Jing knew one another, and were involved in the theater-world -- as was the man she calls Uncle Osu, Tak Osu. A while after her parents' deaths, Yul comes across and reads the play, 'The Specters of Algeria', which she summarizes:
     Four specters appeared in the play, against the backdrop of a bar called "Algeria." [...] None of them knew how they had ended up in Algeria, why they had to stay there, and how they could get out; they would talk about other things, often forgetting that, and then someone would recall the fact and remind the others, and they would ask and answer questions, like a chorus that was repeated at regular intervals.
       Later, we also learn that among the action is: "a young man who keeps drawing water out of one well and filling another with the water, and when that well is full, draws water from it and fills the first well with it". If not exactly convincing as a nineteenth-century drama, the summary and the dialogue that is shared suggest an existentialist post-war European play.
       Kim Cheolsu, who narrates the second part, becomes intrigued first by Tak Osu and then also The Specters of Algeria -- learning that Osu had retired from the theater almost a decade earlier (to open a bar -- called 'Algeria' ...), and that the last play he had put on was The Specters of Algeria. Cheolsu seeks out and finds Osu, and Osu then fills in more of the story -- including an entertaining (fictional) account of how Marx came to write the play, and how it survived. Finally, the last part tells, more or less, 'The Remaining Story'.
       A character describes the conclusion of the play, noting that:
     The four had failed to get out of Algeria. They never found out why they had been locked up, or what they were doing there. It was a dismal.
       Thinking it over, he reflects:
It was a quite universal trap, one into which anyone could fall. Or was it fate ? A natural destiny that no one, in the end, could avoid. Perhaps such were the things that Marx had wanted to talk about.
       The Specters of Algeria is anything but straightforward -- even as so much of the characters' accounts, bit by bit, seem to be --, not only in its presentation. The connections between the characters aren't always immediately clear, and with the story shifting between present-day and times past, and some of the narrators having only partial knowledge, the reader can stumble across holes that are only eventually (and sometimes only partially) filled. But then it is very much a story of memory -- with someone who had written a commentary about the play suggesting, for example:
According to her, Algeria was a refuge of sorts for the four characters in the play. Her reason for concluding thus was that none of them remembered the past; complete rest is impossible when one still remembers the times through which one has passed.
       The Specters of Algeria can feel elusive, with shifts of character names ("Even after I became Eunjo, they all called me Yul") just one of the things that can trip readers up -- while also, of course, contributing to the overall impression Hwang wishes to make, where identity in all its facets isn't simple and fixed. Readers may experience some frustration in how the story unfolds, the path not one that methodically clears things up one after the other, but if one can accept that it is not meant to provide all those secondary answers -- of who and what and why -- it is satisfyingly engrossing.
       This is a strange and surprisingly multilayered work, so much of it seemingly so clear and approachable and yet so much also remaining tantalizingly just out of focus and reach. The Specters of Algeria is a novel that demands some give from the reader, but for those willing to take it on its own terms it is certainly rewarding, an impressive achievement.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 August 2023

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The Specters of Algeria: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       South Korean author Hwang Yeo Jung (황여정) was born in 1974.

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© 2023 the complete review

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