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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Long Road

Kim In-Suk

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To purchase The Long Road

Title: The Long Road
Author: Kim In-Suk
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 112 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Long Road - US
  • Korean title: 먼길
  • Translated by Stephen J. Epstein

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly heavy-handed, but an interesting slice of (near-)contemporary Korean life

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Long Road is set in Australia, in the mid-1990s, its main characters three expatriate South Koreans. The central figure is Han-Yeong, who has lived in Australia for several years but now finds himself somewhat adrift, unsure of what to do with himself -- and his thoughts still very much on the woman he left behind (or abandoned) in Korea, Seo-Yeon. Much of the novel takes place aboard a boat (appropriately enough for these characters so much at sea) -- in very unsettled weather (leaving them tossed about ...) -- as Han-Yeong joins his brother, Han-Rim, and another Korean, Myeong-U, on a fishing trip.
       Han-Rim left Korea before his brother; he was a minor singing star who got in trouble with the Korean authorities -- who overreacted in their brutal crackdowns -- and who now only sings karaoke (but gets "a perfect score in every karaoke club"); he is also divorced. Myeong-U came to Han-Yeong's attention because he was the first South Korean to be granted permanent residency on the basis of political asylum -- though apparently: "Plenty of Koreans in Australia had better activist credentials than that punk", as Myeong-U's lawyer notes.
       The three men have ambivalent attitudes towards the country -- and, in Han-Yeong's case, the woman -- they left behind (as well as their places in what has become their adopted homeland), as The Long Road is a novel of coming to terms with the political situation in Korea in the 1980s, of coming of age during that time under martial law, and of an exile that seems only partially voluntary. As such, the novel, written in 1995, does have a slightly dated feel, the rapid transformation of a more democratic South Korea in the time since then a missing part of what has become a much larger picture. The novel amplifies that feeling, because these are all stunted men, left at sea abroad (and here literally at sea -- though at least they do make it back to land at the end): if their lives have not entirely ground to a halt, it certainly seems like they are merely treading water. Myeong-U reveals that he finds himself unhappily lost on: "A long road, nothing but an endless road", and Han-Yeong has to admit to himself:

     So he sacrificed everything for his dream. His entire youth. Eight years. His nationality, his woman, his cuisine, even the way he laughed and sighed. Everything. And now, despite all his sacrifices and transformations, he imagined himself as no more than a balloon. Not a light balloon without the ballast of agony and ambition, but a balloon whose cord anchoring it to agony and ambition had been severed ... and so, he floated aloft ... wandering a vast space, over an undetermined land.
       Kim's approach is often pretty heavy-handed, and The Long Road drips with (generally rather explicit) symbolism, from the sheep Han-Yeong once ran over ("The trampled piece of garbage seemed to be his own self", Kim adds, in case you didn't get it) to the whole fishing-outing or Han-Rim's singing career, and his songs. This actually does make the text easier to appreciate for foreigners less familiar with the Korean specifics Kim is addressing, but the lack of subtlety can be enervating, leaving the book feeling like one that might be assigned for a high school class (admittedly allowing for much discussion and analysis -- but most of it just too easily served up).
       Still, for such a short novel -- little over a hundred pages -- Kim does cover a good deal of ground, from the purely personal (one reason Han-Yeong did not marry Seo-Yeon was because of family opposition, because her sister was mentally retarded and that supposed genetic taint was hard to overlook in Korean society at the time) to the political. She also offers an interesting glimpse of life in (Australian) exile for these characters.
       The Long Road is of considerable interest, as a book of its times and specific culture, but it's these aspects -- and Kim's reliance on symbolism, densely packed into the text -- that also weigh it down some.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 January 2011

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The Long Road: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       Korean author Kim In-Suk (김인숙) was born in 1963.

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© 2011 the complete review

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