This review is about Cheon Myeong-kwan's book, "Whale" (고래), which won the Munhakdongne Novel Prize in 2004, organized by the Munhakdongne Publishing Group since 1995; and, in addition the novel was shortlisted for the 2023 International Booker Prize.
This is a story, halfway between literary and cinematographic, in which the lives of three women unfold: a one-eyed old woman who controls the bees with a whistle, Geumbok and her daughter Chunhui, who is mute and has the gift of communicating with an elephant with fantastic abilities.
The first and second parts of the novel focus on a girl who leaves her home in the mountains and becomes a successful entrepreneur. The third, and final, part of the novel tells of Chunhui's release from prison, who returns to the brick factory that burned killing 800 people and of which she was found guilty of arson, until events unfold and a vital circle in death closes.
A short biographical note on the author
Cheon Myeong-kwan was born 40 kilometers north of Seoul, in the city of Yongin (Gyeonggi Province), in 1964. After working at various jobs, such as a golf store clerk and an insurance company salesman, he finally entered the film industry after reaching his thirties. He started as an assistant director and ended up writing screenplays. Cheon Myeong-kwan wanted to be a film director, but around the age of 40 he failed in his attempt to make his film as a director, and it seems that his younger brother advised him to write novels, starting in the world of literature with a short story.
A proposal for analysis
From the point of view of reflection on art, and literature is, in the same way as, for example, cinema or painting, the work of art acquires its authentic dimension and meaning in the mind of the spectator or audience. That is to say, we use a whole series of resources, from more rational to more emotional, to receive and interpret the artistic production to which we are exposed.
One of the impressions one has when reading Cheon Myeong-kwan's novel is that of being in front of an audiovisual expression, specifically cinematographic, but also literary. And, in a way it is, as we have seen above, and given the author's life trajectory.
In this case, as in the case of any reader of "Whale", my vision is given by my experiences in different fields. For that reason, for me, the element that could be said to be the central element of my experience with this novel has to do with passages whose focus is the whale. One of them, the sighting of the whale while Geumbok is in the shore:
"Something hot pushed up from her gut, the sensation of something primal, vibrating from a living creature surviving the threat of death". Myeong-Kwan, Cheon. Whale (pp. 52-53).
Next, she swims in search of the cetacean.
Geumbok, it emerges as one of the three main characters in the three parts of the novel, focusing on her journey through post-war Korea, settling in a remote village in South Korea, which will grow into a major population center. The daughter of a drunkard in a mountain village, Geumbok one day leaves with a traveling fishmonger, and her first glimpse of the sea inspires her to great things. In particular, the sight of a whale breaching into the ocean is a vision that will stay with her for years to come, as we have seen above.
It is also interesting, I will try to give my vision and interpretation of this passage below, how one day Geumbok hears that the fishermen have captured a blue whale, which turns out to be the same one he chased in the ocean waters without being able to catch it. As they begin to cut up the blue whale, Geumbok watches in fascination and terror as they cut into the belly of the blue whale, among the blood and viscera of the animal, anchors, fishing gear, rigging, wood from boats, seaweed and fish.
This scene is also linked, at least in my way of looking at Cheon Myeong-kwan's novel, with how Geumbok decides to build a big cinema, and that this place is in the shape of the blue whale he chased, unsuccessfully, forcing him to return to the beach and dry up in the wind, and then saw captured in the harbor, and how from its slit belly came out rigging, seaweed, fish, fishing gear, and so on.
More than twenty years have passed since these events, and now she is planning to build a movie theater in front of Pyeongdae Station, for which bricks are being brought from Nambaran. It is worth noting that the layout of the movie theater, which is attended by crowds of people and local celebrities, is shaped like a whale with its tail raised: the projection room is in the tail, the screen is on the head of the whale, and the audience takes their seats in the belly of the whale. This reinforces the idea that art does not happen in the object, but in the viewer, and in turn highlights a very interesting evocation of space: if we compare these elements with what is described above, with respect to the "original" model seen by Geumbok we have a powerful idea that is worth unpacking, and that allows, in my opinion, to understand the general sense of "Whale" and the different symbolisms and images used by Cheon Myeong-kwan.
In other words, it forces us to react in some way as readers to try to unravel the work, which places it in the category of cultural creator, and in a certain way, social and loaded with transcendent elements, since we are before the symbolic fact, as Bourdieu reflected in "Les Règles de l'art. Genèse et structure du champ littéraire".
"Whale" in magical realism
It is important to situate the novel within the subgenre of the so-called magical realism, as this will provide us with a series of elements necessary to try to explain what has caught my attention in this novel. A key factor of this literary subgenre is that it comes from the world of the plastic arts, and therefore from the image, and from there it went to the world of literature, and that it consists of mixing reality and fantasy in a natural way, presenting the strange as something everyday, common, unreal, sometimes wonderful. Its origin comes from a crisis, an undermining in the collective imaginary of a society: after the First World War nothing runs along the channels that everyone considered firmly established, we are facing a new perspective in which everything runs towards the unknown, at great speed, often in an internal and external struggle, even violent. In this context a disciple of Freud, Carl Jung, will affirm that man must seek to unite the rational (or realistic) with the irrational (let's call it "magic"). Jung will be of great importance for my vision of "Whale".
In the genre of magical realism we will find realistic structures, an influence of myths and heroes and heroines, picaresque, satire, the gothic novel, and the very fact of postmodernity, which would be the conjunction of precisely all these factors, for example, in addition to the expression of disenchantment with society in general accompanied by a certain sense of emptiness. "Whale" has several parallels, or influences, from Gabriel García Márquez's "Cien años de soledad": Macondo would be Pyeongdae, Aureliano Triste Buendía's ice factory would have its equivalent in the brick factory, the way in which both factories are abandoned, the impact of cinema or the means that express modernity in both works as is the case of the railroad, etc.
For this reason, the characters of the novels of magical realism, and of "Whale" in particular, present archetypal traits, which are an expression of both what Jung focuses on the biological and spiritual instinct, something that links them as archetypes to the imagination, and they are all of them, to one extent or another, impressive and fascinating in their presentation and evolution, since they enjoy an immanence with something somewhat atavistic, and which is perceived by the psyche, with its abysses and immeasurable heights, impressive and fascinating in their presentation and evolution, since they enjoy an immanence with something in a certain atavistic way, and which is perceived by the psyche, with its abysses and immeasurable heights, like the swell of the sea and the movement of the waters themselves before the action of a cetacean, for example. At the same time, there is another aspect that marks the narrative and it has to do with the sensation of observing a sort of dream, there is an atmosphere that is somehow dreamlike and that, in my opinion, could be intertwined in certain aspects with the idea of destiny. Jung will also refer to it, and this same idea can be found in Borges' "Fictions", the story of a man who wishes to dream a man in order to create him, until he realizes that he himself is also being dreamed by another man, creating in the end a sort of three-dimensional existence, in the same way that "Whale" contemplates that same three-dimensional structure through the three main characters: Geumbok, Chunhui and Cheon. Interesting also is the fact that the novel spans a series of decades in which the characters evolve (even Geumbok changes identity), dividing itself into three parts.
In fact, Cheon Myeong-kwan has, as already mentioned, a background in the world of cinema. If the world "dreams" it does so through literature and cinema (or the language of cinema and literature transferred to other media, such as comics or television), to which we add the musical aspect as a reinforcement in the narration. This is how humanity explains and we explain ourselves, through storytellers or "shamans".
The importance of the archetypes: the key to reading
That is why archetypes are so important, since they describe and mobilize the collective and, in turn, seek to connect with the most personal side, and thus reach the unconscious, both individual and collective. Therefore, symbolic interpretation must take precedence over semiotics. I have in mind at the time of reading "Whale" for example the following works of Jung: "Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche", "Psychological Types", "Archetypes and Collective Unconscious" and "Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature". Regarding the impact of all this on the spectator, we must take into account the contributions, in turn, of Gestalt psychology, which also dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. It explains that the mind configures the elements that reach each person through perception and memory, generating a reaction that we could conclude in the phrase that the whole has more than just the sum of its parts.
To illustrate it somehow, Irvine Rock, experimental psychologist, has theorized that the ability to perceive an object would be found in something that goes beyond the focus of the retina, it would also involve the nervous system. In other words, it triggers an extremely profound reaction at several points: this is what makes it, in the whole that I have tried to explain, something powerful and shocking, both individually and collectively, and which can overcome us, as Pascal concludes in his "Pensées" when he states that the human being "is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity that engulfs him". This idea would be symbolized by the whale in the text, and would be the starting point for an interpretation endowed with certain parallels with the audiovisual world.
For that reason we perceive in the novel a series of archetypes: Geumbok represents the inventiveness, determination and initiative of Korea, which in that context progresses in business changing the necessary looking for what will be the next novelty, the next wave to be taken at the right time to go up and leave the old wave that now sinks. This is how Geumbok, as an archetypal character, represents those people who changed their status and economic level for an increasingly higher one, even if sometimes it is done over humble people and saving on workers' safety. In turn, this period of economic freedom was also reinforced by political repression, which is represented by the dark figure of another archetype, "the General", which with the issue of anti-communism is presented as an opportunity for further exploitation and abuses, as well as for widespread corruption. This aspect is illustrated in the arrest and prosecution of Chunhui.
In this regard, the manhwa "The Banned Books Club", with script by Kim Hyun Sook and Ryan Estrada, and drawing by Ko Hyung-Ju, deals with the dictatorship in South Korea in the 1980s, and its pages recall the political corruption in an oppressive dictatorial environment where fake news and censorship abound. The power of fear exercised by governments and the dangers of pacification through entertainment show that the dictatorship had the population perfectly controlled to distract them from the abuses of such a system. The graphic novel shows how student activism can lead to a salvation of the system through knowledge (one of the books they read in this graphic novel is nothing more and nothing less than Moby-Dick or "The Whale" by Herman Melville). A profound reflection that shows us how democracies demand to be constantly updated through education, vigilance and action.
The whale as a symbol
Well, let's talk about the use of the whale, of a great symbolic load. To one extent or another, every person throughout his life will be swallowed by a "whale", either because we were thrown overboard of the ship by our fellow travelers (society, "false friendships") or because each person is free to make mistakes and we are exposed to the consequences, whether we have absolute responsibility or we are partially responsible. Let us say that we fall into the darkness of the waters of existence, or in the words of San Juan de la Cruz, the "Dark night of the soul" (la "Noche oscura del alma"). I think this thought is found in the Buddhist tradition, in Vipassana meditation and the three marks of human existence, which are suffering, denial of self and impermanence. This reflection is also found in Jung and links, according to him, with the idea of the nocturnal sea voyage, a theme studied by the anthropologist Leo Frobenius in his book "Das Zeitalter des Sonnengottes".
According to this scheme, we would be facing a type of universal story in which a sea monster, usually a whale, swallows an individual, who remains inside the whale's stomach for an undetermined time until he is thrown to a land that is not the land from which he departed, generating a story of transformation, death and rebirth. In addition, the cetacean embodies in itself a symbol of the dark and the unconscious. We would be, following Carl Jung, before a process of observation and exposure of the collective unconscious that would come to treat Korean society since the 1950s, and also the use of archetypes that represent different elements of those years of history, such as episodes of military dictatorships, the great development around the Han River, the profound change from a pre-modern society to a post-modern society. In that sense, the accelerated transformation of South Korea leaves shadows, even deep ones: the film viewers are in the belly of the whale, and come to drink coffee and alcohol, without managing to solve any of the underlying tensions or problems, but further reinforcing the new system of organization of labor and capital.
It is impossible not to have in mind, in turn, other works of world literature, such as Moby-Dick (or "The Whale"), by Herman Melville, where the great white whale symbolizes contradiction and the uncontrollable things of life. About Melville's novel also comes to my mind a reference for Moby-Dick as is the work of Carlyle, and specifically "On Heroes: Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History", in which the Scottish thinker reflects that the hero is that individual attached, rooted and driven by the cause of Reality, of Facts, who gives his life to fight against Falsehood and Appearances. It is worth pondering which of the three characters, if any of them can fall under this definition, is the heroine of Cheon Myeong-kwan's story.
Perhaps to reflect on and interpret the very meaning of what was stated in the paragraph immediately above it would perhaps be interesting to point out another of the frameworks necessary to think "Whale" and the very idea of who the heroine of this story is, and that is wuxia fiction (pinyin: wǔxiá), which literally means "martial hero," and which is a genre of fiction about martially powerful heroes, with magical abilities, who exist in a parallel world and in the shadows of Chinese imperial history. They would have their equivalents in the samurai of the Japanese bushidō, the knights-errant of medieval romances and the American Western, especially with the desperate ones who embark on adventures in isolated villages in search of that ever-elusive freedom in a context where getting rich is easy if you have no scruples about the lives and fortunes of the innocent. Don't we find interesting parallels? In my opinion, yes.
Wuxia can be thought of in these universal terms, focusing on themes such as justice, loyalty and freedom, to one extent or another in open opposition to contemporary politics. These are stories of the marginalized, existing outside conventional hierarchies of power. For such reasons, this genre of fiction has been banned by multiple governments throughout its centuries-long history right up to the present day. In fact, the vast majority of the most important wuxia texts are not written by Chinese authors living in China and receiving recognition, but by a dreamy diaspora in the midst or aftermath of great political upheaval. What this means is that the world of wuxia is fundamentally tied to those hierarchies of power it seeks to reject.
The archetypal wuxia hero is someone who, adhering only to his own personal code of honor, makes his way into the world of "rivers and lakes" (jianghu, in pinyin: jiānghú). Such an expression, "rivers and lakes," comes from a metaphor of the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (4th century B.C.), to describe a utopian space outside of ruthless court politics, professional ambitions and even human attachments. The evolution of this word will eventually come to mean "stateless", something that underlines the hero's rejection of the machineries of power. Jianghu is thus a world that rejects the dictates of the state in favor of divine virtue and reason, but also of a sense of identity created through clan and community. These heroes are inevitably embroiled in personal vendettas and family intrigues, even as they yearn for freedom and seek to improve their own skills in the martial arts. If it could all be summed up in one word that captures the very essence of wuxia, it would be "salvation".
Another reference of "Whale" could be in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. In this case, the marine element, the division of the novel into three parts corresponding to different phases over three decades of "Pip's" life, the fact that a character acquires a special dimension for the protagonist after entering (and leaving) a prison, with a society in transformation, and a portrait of misery and the people who inhabit it, looking for a way for the protagonist to escape from it.
This dual element of the whale and its symbolism as a personal representation but also of a collective can be seen in Fellini's cinematography in "La Dolce Vita", when the sea monster appears on the beach and looks at Marcello Mastroianni, as opposed to the young woman who calls him but with whom he cannot communicate.
On this same theme, but in the collective aspect in the adaptation of the Satyricon, where he represents the society of that time, with the parallelism drawn by the Emilia-Romagna filmmaker between Petronius' satire and the drift of the West.
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