With her previously translated novel, Tokyo Ueno Station, Yu Miri brought her perspective as a Zainichi Korean writer – ethnically Korean but writing in Japanese – to bear on social inequality in modern Japan. It was a powerful novel of contrasts, juxtaposing a prestigious national narrative, as represented by the Japanese emperor and the Tokyo Olympics, with the reality of poor conditions for construction labourers and homeless congregations. It brought Yu Miri’s writing to a wider English-speaking audience and marked her out as a necessary voice in Japanese literature, especially at a time when so much contemporary Japanese fiction is now marketed as cosy and non-threatening.
The End of August tells Yu Miri’s family history against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Korea and the attempt to establish a continental Japanese empire throughout Korea, China and Manchuria. It opens in 1930s Miryang, where competitive long-distance runner Lee Woo-cheol trains along the river bank, his stream of thoughts synchronised with the rhythm of his breathing – his signature “in-hale ex-hale” becomes one of the novel’s key refrains. Woo-choel is Yu Miri’s grandfather, a man who had 10 children with his mistress and three wives, and who is central to the extensive family tree around which the novel is built. The story, which draws on myths, songs, poetry and shamanistic rituals, is not only situated in Korea but rooted within its traditions and folk spirituality.
In Woo-cheol’s schooling we see the attempts by the Japanese to erase Korean language and culture, supplanting it with colonial rhetoric. The Japanese occupation of Korea was also central to the recent novel Mater 2-10 by Hwang Sok-yong (translated by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae) and there is much common ground between the two works, though The End of August is perhaps deeper at the character level. However, much of the tragedy and pathos that Yu Miri depicts here also speaks to embedded cultural Korean attitudes between men and women, and the ways in which the weight of tragedy is born differently.
It is rare to see the position of comfort women portrayed so centrally and unsparingly in Japanese fiction, and Yu Miri had to fight hard for its inclusion when the story was first published
There is a novella-length digression within the book to tell the story of Eiko, a 13-year-old neighbour of Woo-cheol who is tricked into leaving home to take up work in a factory, only to find that she has been conscripted as a comfort woman – one of the thousands of women from occupied territories taken into sex slavery by the Japanese army before and during the second World War. Eiko is locked away in remote rural China, raped up to 30 times a day, and subjected to abuse, violence and infection. It is rare to see the position of comfort women portrayed so centrally and unsparingly in Japanese fiction, and Yu Miri had to fight hard for its inclusion when the story was first published; however, it enhances the novel’s value as a document of untold experiences.
This is an ambitious work. At more than 700 pages, it invites the reader to share its ambition. It is worth noting that it was originally published in serialised form, in short sections over a two-year period between 2002 and 2004, appearing simultaneously in Korean and Japanese newspapers. This helps explain the shifts in style and approach throughout the book – it works not as a single stream but as a mosaic of personal, historical and universal stories. Notably, it was first serialised in newspapers during the Iraq war, with the author writing in real time with the awareness that the story would need to match the power and currency of the unfolding contemporary conflict. As such, this is not a historical account that looks back, but one that actively seeks to engage with the world as it is today.
Yu Miri’s handling of such artistic, emotional and historical complexity serves to underline the continuing relevance of the novel as a form capable of penetrating and making sense of an unbearable past
The translation by Morgan Giles preserves the identity of the author as a Korean writing in Japanese, with countless phrases kept in their original language, though the meaning can be understood readily from the context. The inclusion of songs, poems, abstract meditations and shifts in rhythm must have made this a difficult text to render, but Morgan Giles has done a masterful job in providing an engaging English-language text that is rich in linguistic and cultural authenticity.
The End of August is a monumental work of real importance. It makes for a compelling account of Korean and Japanese history rooted in the personal experiences of those who lived through it. Yu Miri’s handling of such artistic, emotional and historical complexity serves to underline the continuing relevance of the novel as a form capable of penetrating and making sense of an unbearable past.