Korea1 Essay, Research Paper
A Brief Commentary on the Meaning, Societal Relevance, and Use of Subtlety in Ch’oe Inhon’sThe BoozerMarch 11, 1996″Whenever a shot of that rotgut washed the inside of his everinsatiable mouth he knew justhow much more dense his life was going to get” (Ch’oe, 109). Ch’oe Inho’s The Boozer offersa dismal glimpse into the life of the lower classes during the period of Koreanmodernization. Although The Boozer was written in the 1960s, the story does not provide anallegorical account of particular events during the authoritarian rule of Park Chung Hee.Rather, Ch’oe uses the setting of a working class community to convey the suffering of anorphan boy over the loss of his parents during one of his escapades into the tavern life ofthe town. In addition, Ch’oe withholds from the reader the most important piece ofinformation, that the boy indeed has no living parents, until the end of the story. Througha clever manipulation of information, The Boozer accomplishes the latter task, while givingus a vivid sense of the boy’s traumatic memory of his parents’ deaths and of the desolatelife of the working class community. In the first few pages of the story, we are lead tobelieve that the boy is looking for his father to call him home to the bedside of his dyingwife. The boy informs the drinkers in the tavern that he has seen his mother’s conditionworsen and that she has sent him to get her husband. But even before this, Ch’oe hasalready dropped a subtle hint that the father is gone. Here is how the boy describes hisfather:”Why, you’d know him! He has a great big mole over one eye. He always smelled like onions,and he always went around with cloves of garlic in his back pocket. And, they said healways cried when he drank.” (104) The boy starts his description in the present tense andshifts to the past tense as he recounts details about his father’s habits. This passagealone casts the first shadow of doubt on the “living” status of the father. In particular,the phrase “they said he….” suggests that the boy experienced his father’s death at anearly age and knows him partly from reputation. This use of the past tense may be toosubtle to notice upon a first reading and even the impression that the father may be longgone is erased as the boy later speaks about his father in the present tense. There arenumerous other indicators that mislead us into believing the authenticity of the boy’smission. For example, the boy is quite determined in his mission. “I’ll look all night…. If I can just find my father, everything will be okay My father’sdifferent from you people. Father may be a boozer, but there’s nothing he can’t do if hesets his mind to it. You know, once he took copper and made it into gold. Gold!” (105). In this passage we also encounter the boy’s genuine admiration for his father and thesecurity the thought of his father provides, as if the latter were alive and well, waitingfor his son to find him. In addition, he shows concern about his father’s sobriety, so thatthe latter can face the serious moment of his wife’s death in full possession of hisfaculties. There is one moment where it appears that the father may have already returnedto his wife and, after her death, gone back out to drink: “Your father left, kid. Said hewas going to the widow’s tavern” (107). The inconsistency here is that the boy isunperturbed by the barmaid’s usage of the word “widow.” But, given his drunken state, wemay forgive the boy for overlooking this. Later, as the boy continues wandering through thetown, we are informed that “He knew well where it was he was going to. He had neverforgotten this route, no matter how drunk he got” (112). This is the first direct hint thatthe boy’s actions are not spontaneous attempts to find his father but a part of awell-established routine that he follows after a day of drinking. But the followingsentence reverts the reader’s attention to the search for the father: “What could Father bedoing while Mother is heading to her death?” (112). By the end of the story, and after manysubtle hints and inconsistencies, we are left with the uncomfortable thought that we havemissed something. It is past the taverns’ closing time when the boy visits his aunt. Whyhas he not found his father? Was he really looking for him? Why hasn’t he returned to hishome, to his dying mother? It is not until the end that we are given an obvious hint thatsomething in the boy’s story is wrong. When he visits his aunt, the boy says “Auntie.Please don’t die before I grow up. Grit your teeth and bear it.” Only at this point are wegiven a hint that the boy has survived the death of his family members, or perhaps even hisfriends, that maybe his aunt is the only living relative he has left. His parents are gone,his siblings are gone, lost, or nonexistent. As far as we can tell, the boy has no closeties with any relative because even his aunt treats him more like a pest which must bedisposed of as soon as possible, and as the boy leaves her house she bids him “Good-bye.And don’t come back!” (114). Prior to this incident, Ch’oe makes no obvious references tothe loss of the boy’s parents. A few lines later, we find out that the boy is returning tohis orphanage. The search for the father was just a fa ade. With this in mind, a closerreading of The Boozer reveals that the boy’s desperate search for his father is amanifestation of the boy’s psychological trauma caused by the untimely deaths of hisparents. The boy has a vivid memory of his mother’s death, of her bloody vomiting (105).
In all likelihood, this was followed by a desperate attempt to resolve his psychologicalshock by means of looking for his father, the only person who could offer him security andcomfort at that time, the only one who could make everything “okay.” We are not told thedetails of his father’s death, but he too is now deceased and the boy is left alone in anorphanage. Throughout The Boozer, the boy keeps reliving the death of his mother and fatherand seems to be in a state of permanent denial. His drinking appears to be a regularpractice of dealing with his traumatic memories. The boy enters taverns where “the latchwas familiar” and where he drinks shots “like a master at sleight-of-hand.” The drinkers inthe taverns know the boy as well. One of them, Whiskers, takes advantage of the boy’spsychosis and amuses himself by claiming he has seen his father that night and even had adrink with him. Curiously enough, the boy does not inquire as to where his father has gone,briefly mentions his mother’s violent illness again, and, just as we would expect of any ofthe drunks in the story, he focuses his attention on the bottle of “pellucid rotgut soju.”The boy described in The Boozer is a realistic figure and we must ask what type of societywould bring him to such a tragic state. It would be overinterpretation to force a tightcorrelation between the story and the time it was written (1966). There is no directrelation of characters or events with specific events of the age of post-Korean Wardevelopment (1953-1970s), but the story does provide an image of the harsh lives led byworking class families during this time. The connection between the lives of typicalworking class Koreans and those of the characters is not as direct as in Hwang S gy ng’s ADream of Good Fortune. Ch’oe Inho links real life and the life of the drinkers in TheBoozer concisely and subtly with images of the depressed, drinking men, and their dark,dank, dusty taverns. The boy’s neighborhood is a depressing settlement made up most likelyof poor factory laborers. Their hard work is inadequately rewarded, their lives bland androutine, without hope of improvement. In the taverns the atmosphere is filled with bittercynicism, exemplified by one drinker’s announcement that “the world goes around to get adrink.” Although the taverns are not described in detail, one image is enough to convey thestifling atmosphere of hopelessness that pervades their interior: a mere thirty-watt lightbulb does a “fair job at illumination.” In one such tavern, the drinkers curse “….theirlives, their hopes for the future, their lousy salaries….” (106) Drinking is the only waythese people find to pass the time between one workweek and the next, a way to escape thereality of their misfortunes. Indeed, Eckert et al in Korea Old and New: A History arguethat one of the major forces sustaining the growth of South Korean economy was cheap laborat the cost of deplorable treatment of the workers:….the country’s low standard of living in the early stages of the growth process; theworkers’ low pay relative to business profits; poor working conditions; the longest averagework week in the world; the workers’ forbearance in the face of such hardships, especiallyin the 1960s and early 1970s (Eckert et al. 402-403) ….When workers, for example, began todemand better conditions and more freedom in the late 1960s and 1970s, the labor laws werestructured into an elaborate system of restraint on union activity, and the workersthemselves were ruthlessly put down by police and other security forces (Eckert et al. 405). Unfortunately, it seems that there is no escape from the resentments and misery of the men’slives other than drink. In some ways, the boy is already very similar to the drinking men.When one of the drinkers, the one-armed man, seizes the boy and brings his “knife-hand” tothe boy’s throat, what the boy feels is not horror but “a light pang coming to the area ofhis throat and…. the sound of grieving for an easy life.” The boy feels the despair inhis life, just as the drinking men do, just as his own father must have felt. Ironically,even though the boy cannot accept his parents’ deaths, he is completely desensitized to thedeaths of others. After the one-armed man takes his own life, the boy feels no remorse, butinstead calls him a “Stupid asshole.” He shows similar insensitivity and unconcern for thesleeping drunk he robs just moments later. He knows the man will probably freeze to deathbefore morning but makes no effort to bring the man into shelter and is fully absorbed inhis task of pilfering through the man’s pockets. Such impersonal insensitivity to the lossof human life is an unfortunate but necessary part of everyday living in the boy’scommunity. The only structural unit in his society that is capable of providing protectionand security is the family. But even this is denied to the boy and it is instead replacedby psychological trauma as he continues to relive his parents’ deaths. Ch’oe Inho’s TheBoozer provides us not only with an image of working class poverty, but also explores theimpossible task of resolving the deaths of the parents of a young boy. However, Ch’oe’sgreatest accomplishment here lies in his disguise of the fact that the boy is withoutparents. This required the use of subtle clues, barely perceptible upon first reading, andthese hints are obscured by a highly credible fa ade that Choe is able to maintain until thevery end.
Ch’oe Inhon. “The Boozer.” Land of Exile: Contemporary Korean Fiction. Bruce Fulton,Ju-Chan Fulton, and Marshall R. Pihl, eds. M.E. Sharpe, Incorporated: New York, 1993. Eckert et al. Korea Old and New: A History. Ilchokak Publishers: Seoul, 1990.