A city’s health is measured in many ways, but there is no surer vital sign of an Asian metropolis than the old-fashioned, swap-meet-style market. In Seoul’s above- and belowground bazaars, street vendors and stall merchants deal their endlessly catholic wares. I daydream about these sellers of kimchi stew, bootleg ’70s CDs, dried anchovies, vintage postage stamps, jeggings, and handmade paper, and the tailors, woodcarvers, jewelers, and technicians whose skills are belied by their concrete-and-linoleum surroundings. The noisy, crowded space of the bazaar reminds us just how massive and vital the working class is.
This is a familiar world for the Korean writer Hwang Jungeun. For a time, she worked in her father’s electronics-repair shop in Seoul’s Sewoon Market, a multistory complex built in 1968—and recently adopted by hipster artists. In photos of her father’s store, stacks of speakers, amplifiers, turntables, and jagged spare parts tickle the ceiling, and used coffee cups and unnamable metal scraps crowd out his desk. Hwang draws on these objects to give texture to One Hundred Shadows, a short 2010 novel whose new English translation is among the most affecting books I’ve recently read.
In prose as spare as its setting is cluttered, One Hundred Shadows tells the story of a sprawling 40-year-old electronics market and its quirky knot of inhabitants. Yet the book begins in an eerie natural landscape, to which the narrative periodically returns. Here are the twentysomething innocents Eungyo and Mujae, buzzing with feelings deeper than friendship, lost in a forest whose shapes seem to bend:
We carried on walking.
Now and then twigs snapped beneath our feet, sounding like wet bones breaking.
Mujae, I said, about sex. Do you think it’s really that good?
It must be, don’t you think? …
Should we try it, when we make it out of here? …
I want to do it with someone I like.
Like someone, then.
Eungyo, who was raised by a single dad and bullied out of high school, is the assistant to Mr. Yeo, who operates a repair shop on the fourth floor of Building B. (In the universe of the market, each building, A through E, is its own galaxy.) Her companion, Mujae, whose father died after suffering financial ruin, holds an analogous job in Mr. Gong’s transformer workshop. Their labor in the electronics market, while humdrum, affords escape from Korea’s oppressive class distinctions and the totalizing logic of its economy, dominated by Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and and the other family-run statist conglomerates known as chaebol. This unhurried alternative space is home to septuagenarian craftsmen who heal old German amps; Omusa, a store that stocks infinite varieties of “fingernail-sized” light bulbs; and “shops selling cables and all kinds of tools, then a row that specialised in repairing clocks and watches.” (Coincidentally, another East Asian book about an idiosyncratic amplifier technician was published in translation last year: The Invisibility Cloak, a brisk, snarky novella by Ge Fei, translated by Canaan Morse.)