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  • Writer's pictureCaroline

South Korea - The Specters of Algeria

The Specters of Algeria, by Hwang Yeo Jung (translated by Yewon Jung)

Originally published 2017

Literary fiction

Setting: South Korea

[CWs: domestic abuse]

I am very grateful for the publisher, Honford Star, for sending me an advance copy of this book; the English translation was released in April 2023. Honford Star specialise in bringing East Asia literature to an English-speaking audience.

This was also my very first time doing a buddy read, with another member of 'Team Read the World' who also received a copy. The buddy read was a fantastic way to sift through my rather garbled thoughts after finishing, by trying to commit these to coherent words! I'd like to formally apologise to my patient 'buddy' for how slow I was with our read (life fully got in the way, as did an unfortunate accident involving the book, an open bottle of water, and airplane turbulence), but also take a moment to big up The Storygraph app for facilitating readers of different paces (or different schedules) who want to read together without pressure. The app lets you place comments at certain points in the book, which don't unlock until your buddy(s) reach that page; you can share your thoughts as you go along to your heart's content, completely spoiler-free!

Now, to the plot: The blurb tells us that 'The Specters of Algeria' is a play written by Karl Marx, which is distributed by subversives under Korea's military dictatorship in a defiant act. However, I did feel this blurb was somewhat misleading (perhaps intentionally?) - far from the novel being about Marx however, his name does not even appear until near the end of the book - instead, the narrative is split into sections told by multiple characters, who years after this event are trying to make sense of their lives and in doing so, uncover the story surrounding the play. So if you are put off by the political reference, do not be - the novel is much more about people than politics. However, do expect a very cognitive read; with layers of complexity it can sometimes feel like the 'point' of the novel is brushing the reader's fingertips, just out of reach. I honestly can't say that I fully enjoyed the read - the plot alone does not give a great deal to grab on to and I did not always connect with the characters - but it gave me a lot to chew over and was still occupying space in my mind days later.

The novel opens with Yul's story, and an unspoken childhood love for her friend, Jing. Both Yul and Jing's parents are long-time friends of many years, linked through the theatre, but we sense a deep rift between them. Jing leaves her life and we are left with a drifting, directionless Yul, struggling with and against the relationship with her father, who appears to show an aggressive fear of the written word, and disappears for long unexplained periods of time despite showing some tenderness towards her. As Yul forges a career in alterations and moves through life, a chance meeting eventually brings her towards the anonymous script for the play, 'The Specters of Algeria'. Algeria is a bar, and the 4 specters are locked in a somewhat abstract and meandering conversation. Then, we switch to a new narrator - Cheolsu, who works at a community theatre and shows a similar listlessness towards life, until through circumstances disconnected from Yul, he happens on upon information about the play and is propelled towards finding out more about its author. The mystery slowly begins to unravel, with Cheolsu attempting to play detective and leading towards our third narrator, Jul's uncle, Tak Osu.

Initially, the shift in perspective is a little jarring, and it can be hard to see how the different stories marry up beyond a loose web of relationships with the play at the centre. Many of the characters have both given names and chosen names, which are switched between, adding to some additional difficulty I had keeping track of the different threads. About three quarters in, I was left scratching my head a little wondering where the novel was going, but the final act provided more context and brought many of the themes floating at the periphery into sharper focus, preventing the book from fully losing me. As everything finally fell into place, it felt like a reward for perseverance.

It is a book I think would offer each reader something different to take away - I felt it was about how we construct our own truths, based on what we know (or don't) who we choose to trust and the bias of our perspective. The performance of theatre and the political landscape of distrust under a dictatorship fearful of the spectre of communism both serve as a backdrop for deception and concealment to play out. Much of the dialogue read to me like a script in itself, and increasingly, the characters and their discussions begin to mirror the setting of the eponymous play. Throw in some intergenerational trauma and individual search for identity and overall, it felt like a delicately layered and choreographed piece of work, with the form and structure of the book seeming in itself like a 'clue' to making sense of the narrative. As the reader, what do we choose to believe? Who do we place our trust in when constructing the truth? Do we have the story from all sides?

"I didn't have an atlas or a knack for geography, so I couldn't tell how precise Jing's map was, but it seemed exactly like a world map, as I remembered it, at least. The contours of the continents, with their fine, distinct curves, the confusing boundary lines on the inside, and more than forty country names all served to raise his credibility. Above all, the effortless movements of his hand, as well as the confidence in his eyes, told me that it was the real thing. I would have trusted his map, in fact, even if it were completely different from the real one. Jing's map was Jing's, and anything that was Jing's was completely right."

Hidden behind so many layers of meaning, I did find it harder to connect with the story at times, despite the interesting themes and some beautiful prose. I wonder how much the synopsis of the book contributed to this - waiting to see when Marx's involvement in the story would final surface perhaps pulled some of my attention away from what was unfolding on each page. It may just be the kind of book that requires a second read to truly appreciate and sniff out the breadcrumbs of information scattered across each narrator's story.


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