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Arts and Culture

The House With a Sunken Courtyard

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Posted on Jan 3, 2014
Dalkey Archive Press

By Rayyan Al-Shawaf

(Page 2)

In Kim’s defense, his narrator is a grown man looking back on a year of his childhood, so he might naturally pepper his account with mature musings and opinions. Still, the author’s intention seems to have been to keep this perspective to a minimum. Except for the final pages, where we learn what has since become of most of the people living in or associated with the house with a sunken courtyard all those years ago, Kim generally ensures that the narrator remains unobtrusive, and that we experience most of the events described through the eyes of the younger Gilnam, not his older self. This makes the few exceptions rather jarring.

In the Daegu of 1954, with its teeming masses of refugees (alongside well-heeled folks, as well as both South Korean and U.S. soldiers), concern over the fate of missing loved ones is ubiquitous, even in an atmosphere in which “it seemed that nobody wanted to recall the war or talk about it.” Gilnam’s family, of course, does not know what happened to his father, who may have been killed in the aforementioned air raid, but Gilnam later acknowledges that he may have died in other circumstances, gotten abducted by the North or defected. (This last is apparently what Kim’s father did in real life.) Kim paints a couple of enduring images of secondary and even fleeting characters searching for missing relatives. There is the cheerful, sturdy young man who hauls and chops firewood for some of the residents of the house, and does not hesitate to teach Gilnam how to do the chopping himself, even though it means losing work. A soldier in the North Korean army who was taken prisoner by the South and freed after the war, he always asks the house’s residents whether they’ve come across anyone from his home province in the North. And then there are the “sandwichmen,” who wear “advertisement boards suspended on both their front and back.” The advertisements are in fact pleas for information about missing persons, along with a brief description of their physical appearance.

Back at the house, Kim has Gilnam often refer to three of the neighboring families by their places of origin—Gimcheon, Gyeonggi, Pyongyang—thereby demonstrating the foreignness with which he views them (with the reverse also true), and reminding the reader of the hodgepodge nature of the house’s tenants. The neighbors constantly quarrel over such topics as using the outhouse and switching rooms so as to enhance their living arrangements. They also try to curry favor with the landlord and his family as much as possible. Only once, during a rainstorm whose floods threaten to engulf the house—especially vulnerable due to its sunken courtyard—do the families unite. Everybody, including children and even the landlord’s family (whose members never perform manual labor), comes together to drain the courtyard of water and erect barriers to prevent further flooding. At this moment, when, instead of water submerging the courtyard and destroying the shared house, its residents submerge their regional and class differences beneath a cooperative effort to achieve a common good, Kim fashions a vivid and poignant metaphor for what his fellow Koreans should have done to overcome their country’s divisions.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.


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