I saw a shadow in the woods. I didn’t know it was a shadow at first. I saw it slip through a thicket and followed it in, wondering if there was a path there, and thinking how familiar it looked. The woods grew more dense the deeper in I went, but I kept on going deeper and deeper because the deeper I went, the more the shadow drew me in.
Hwang Jungeun’s novella One Hundred Shadows has a fairytale quality to it, one of shadows that rise up, woods, darkness and lovers. Walking in the woods with our narrator, Eungyo, is a young man, Mujae. It is he who stops her following the shadow deeper into the woods, into the darkness. As they try to find their way out, sodden from the rain, Mujae tells Eungyo a story about a shadow.
The story concerns Mujae’s father and the day his shadow rose. He followed it a little way and then confessed to Mujae’s mother. Mujae’s mother makes his father promise not to follow it again, but the fact he grows thinner and dies leads Mujae to believe his father did follow his shadow:
If you spot someone who looks just like you, it’s your shadow, and once your shadow rises it’s over for you, because shadows are very persistent, because you can’t bear not to follow your shadow once its risen.
Tied up with Mujae’s story is the fact of his parents getting into debt looking after him and his six older sisters. When he describes getting into debt as ‘inevitable’, Eungyo challenges him. He responds:
I don’t really like people who go around saying they don’t have any debt. This might sound a little harsh, but I think people who claim to be in no debt of any kind are shameless, unless they sprang up naked in the woods one day without having borrowed anyone’s belly, and live without a single thread on their back, and without any industrial products.[…]A lot of things can happen in the manufacturing process, can’t they, when it’s the kind of mass production that uses all sorts of materials and chemicals? Rivers could get polluted, the payment for the labour could be too low. What I’m saying is, even if you buy so much as a cheap pair of socks, that low price is only possible because a debt is incurred somewhere along the line.
Eungyo works at an electronics market, manning the customer services desk and running errands for Mr. Yeo’s repair shop. Mujae’s an apprentice at a transformer workshop. This is where the three elements of the story coincide: Eungyo and Mujae’s growing relationship; knowledge about the shadows, and the idea of debt linked particularly with progress in manufacturing.
In her introduction to the book, Han Kang says:
This is a world in which those living on the edges of society, at the very bottom of the social scale, are being brought to the limits of what they can endure.
As Eungyo and Mujae’s place of work is threatened, their very selves – and those around them – are threatened by the rising of their shadows. Jungeun asks whether love can survive in a place overtaken by such darkness.
One Hundred Shadows is smoothly translated into English by Jung Yewon, leading the reader alongside the lovers as they navigate a landscape both familiar and utterly alien. It’s a short, unusual and compelling tale.
Thanks to Tilted Axis for the review copy.