Saturday, 2 June 2012

Dickens 2012: Dateline Seoul

Dickensian, no? Down by the docks in Incheon, South Korea
It was as an evangelist for Dickens and his enduring eminence (see passim) that I spent a few days in Seoul this March past, at the kind invitation (per my excellent Buenos Aires adventure) of the British Council. And the South Korean capital was really a lovely, fascinating, rewarding experience for me. What did I learn? Well, to speak of just a couple of dozen imperfectly formed impressions:

1) I arrived with the intention of looking with clean eyes, eschewing cultural cliché... That said, it is a fact that the view from the window of my (most comfortable) hotel room on the seventeenth floor was part occluded by glowing SAMSUNG and DAEWOO signs. This, after a drive from Incheon Airport through a mist so profoundly murky that for certain stretches I rather feared we were heading north to the Demilitarised Zone – if not the Twilight Zone. (In due course I came upon a popular local brand of bottled water called ‘DMZ’, and had to wonder what it was aiming for, beyond name-recognition.)

2) For all that – if you were to ask me now which is the neighbouring nation that casts the longest shadow over South Korea, against which South Koreans harbour a distinct historical complaint and measure their current levels of progress/success? Well, that would be Japan, I reckon. The old colonial presence is still 'felt' quite strongly, and there is of course a clear sense of economic comparison and competition.

3) There are maybe 25 million people in South Korea? And 12 million of them are in Seoul? The city is hemmed by mountains as far as the eye can see from a high vantage, and this certainly brings home to one the reason for the city’s marked architectural verticality. High up you can also see more clearly how the colonial Japanese re-planned the city, from east to west – in a defiance of the former order that was no doubt wilful.

4) The weather did pick up notably while I was there – however we did get one afternoon of spring snow, which was rather charming and, naturally, put me in mind of Yukio Mishima.

5) Something I realised very quickly, i.e. on arrival at the airport, as that our Dickens 2012 deliberations were only one big deal going down in town that week, possibly the main one being the Nuclear Security Summit. As it happened, Obama arrived in Seoul only as I was leaving, nonetheless I got to observe the ‘Ring of Steel’ being put in place downtown, and steely it most certainly was...

6) Of course I'd be inured to this had I ever visited Japan, but it was just a bit grim to see Robert De Niro advertising the 'Paradise Casino' on hoardings all over Seoul. But it’s maybe less demeaning than some of those comedy films he’s done.

7) I picked up a bit of Korean history; and if you believe the worst stories then getting buried alive was probably too kindly a fate for the insane Crown Prince Sado (1735-1762).

8) Cosmetic surgery is undergoing a huge boom in Seoul, clinics abounding in the heart of the city, a particular fad being for westernised eyelids and noses and skin tones – ‘the erasure of any trace of Mongolian’, as someone put it to me ruefully. Depressing stuff, however you cut it, and wont to lead one to dark old-fashioned thoughts on vanity and morality. Bodily aesthetics shouldn’t be subject to any kind of cultural cringe. I could easily have set a more radical version of The Possessions of Doctor Forrest in Seoul.

9) I hear that the population of South Korea is in a slow steady decline. One easy reason is that more and more women are going out to work. Meanwhile, and not by accident, it seems that working class men (rural especially) are ‘buying brides’ in greater numbers, from Cambodia and Vietnam. This is social dynamite, obviously, as well as grim in itself.

10) I ate very well throughout my stay, Korean cuisine is deliciously sharp-flavoured, spicy and moreish. Naturally I consumed a great deal of kimchi, and found that it ranged from very good to great depending on the core quality of the cabbage. (I did receive a bit of ribbing on my chopstick technique: a Western 'pincer'-style that has always served me OK until now, but which by Korean standards is the trait of a thoroughgoing rube.)

11) In the talks and symposia that I attended and spoke at, we were of course much absorbed in questions of the novelist and the city, how a writer 'takes ownership' of a built environment and its people, how urban planning and literary fiction feed off each other. The oeuvre of Dickens lends itself easily to all this, but a key text from the Korean side was Pak T'aewǒn's urban odyssey 'A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist' (1934), which was hugely influenced, like pretty much all of Korean literature in that era, by Ulysses and high European modernism. I was given a most enlightening guide through this text by dint of a walking tour across Seoul, organised by my hosts and conducted by the critic Byungsik Heo, which retraced the steps of the eponymous Kubo.

12) Our perambulation took us by the attractive Cheonggyecheon Stream, a project of urban renewal spearheaded by Seoul’s former mayor – now South Korea’s president – Lee Myung-bak. For some decades after the 1950s the stream was reduced to a mere sewer concealed under concrete and asphalt, and its restoration came at huge cost to the public purse. The irony is that what we now see is a fake. In fact the old stream proved unsalvageable, and so the new concrete channel is an artificial way, its current created by the daily electric pumping of thousands of tons of water. Meanwhile, in the depths beneath, the old sewer remains the old sewer... Such is the game of urban regeneration, you might say – but clearly Cheonggyecheon offers us an easy metaphor about city politics, heritage, ‘clean-up’, the authentic and the superficial.

13) Political protestors on the city streets who wish to give cheek to President Lee Myung-bak will sometimes don cat costumes. It’s not an obvious stratagem, until you understand that some of the President’s strongest critics have given him the pungent nickname of ‘The Rat’.

14) The British Council in Korea treated me to several fine meals and considerately arranged for me to meet some really formidable local writers and scholars. The brilliant Professor Hyejoon Yoon is both a novelist and academic, and the Korean translator of Oliver Twist, inter alia. The remarkable and most venerable Brother Anthony of Taize has, since relocating to Seoul from Cornwall thirty years ago, become probably the most eminent translator of Korean into English. And Gyeong Uk Kim, Choi Jae-Hoon and Yoon Seong-hee are three very smart and accomplished contemporary novelists, all just a couple of years younger than me.

MacArthur in (Freedom) Park
15) In the company of those novelists I was given a wonderful guided tour of Incheon, the port town that really opened Korea to the world, and (as I recalled from my O-Level History) saw probably the hinge battle of the Korean War. That, of course, is why a statue of General MacArthur stands in the former Park of Nations, which became Suh Park during the Japanese occupation, then Jayu (Freedom) Park after the war of 1950-53... 

16) On the slopes of Freedom Park is a wonderful Cultural Centre: a late nineteenth-century clubhouse with polished walnut wood floors, leather wingback armchairs, glass-cabinet displays on every wall, representing all the great trading and seafaring nations of the 1890s... It was known as the Jemulpo Club, in the days when diplomats and businessmen came to sip their bitters or cordials, and gaze meaningfully out across the bay toward the ‘Yellow Sea’...

17) Incheon is an old shipping town that has also been 'regenerated' in the manner of a fair few old shipping towns one might speak of... As you get near the docks you find former shipbuilders’ offices and granaries and bonded warehouses that have become art galleries and theatres and rehearsal/studio spaces, attractive places where one can also get a damn fine cup of coffee. I found all this very stirring, and began to tell my companions (through my translator) some stories of the changing faces of post-war Newcastle upon Tyne, and a man called T Dan Smith...

18) Our last stop in Incheon was a shanty town that has existed in various forms since the Japanese colonial period: now it’s a series of broad alleys lined by homes made from breeze blocks, tarpaulins and corrugated iron, along with some nicer-looking prefabs, and a mercifully foursquare kindergarten. (There were a few too many exposed gas pipes for comfort, and the archetypal black dog tied up to a tyre with rope.) Our local host brought us into the home of a local shaman: a lady of advanced years, sat comfortably in her parlour before a small telly, cell-phone and cigarettes placed at her side. Behind a sliding screen was her altar, heavily incensed, festooned with all manner of charms, amulets, scarves and sashes, where she also keeps the knives she will sometimes dance upon for ceremonial purposes. Call it a throwback if you will, but port towns are big on shamen, with good reason. Wherever men have set out to sea, you get a keen attention to fates, augurs and omens. For me, a fitting place to conclude the cultural expedition.

19) I am most grateful to my hosts in Seoul, who could not have been more thoughtful: in particular to Yoonjoe Park, who put together the program for my visit with great astuteness and kind consideration; and to Jaeyong Park and Yoonna Cho, who took me everywhere and guided me in expert and most affable fashion, as well as offering copious and much-needed translations.