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B : teetering on the melodramatic, but thoroughly engaging
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Turbid Rivers is set in Japanese-occupied Korea between the world wars, in the port city of Gunsan and then Seoul.
It is very much a domestic novel -- a family novel, of sorts, though the family is far from ideal (and, indeed, one of Ch'ae's major themes is that of the obligations of family members to one another).
The pater familias, Jeong Jusa, is out of work when the story begins, and dabbles -- almost inevitably entirely unsuccessfully -- in the rice market, and the family struggles to get by.
He and his wife have four children, and the oldest daughter, Chobong -- twenty-one -- works as an assistant in a pharmacy and is the main wage earner for the family.
Her sister, seventeen-year-old Gyebong is still in school, and they have two younger brothers -- the spoiled, whiny youngest, Byeongju, only six years old.
Having been enticed by this good fortune, a seemingly good fortune that could open up the door to financial security, if only they could marry off Chobong to Taesu, they couldn't afford to entertain any doubts about Taesu. They evaded the parental duty of standing back a little to examine whether this marriage might not bring miseries upon their daughter, or to confirm Madam Kim's stories by investigating here and there until their doubts were all cleared up. They had to be evasive because they were frightened of the possibility that once their doubts turned out to be facts, they wouldn't dare proceed with the marriage.Of course, it's a marriage that should never happen: Taesu is an embezzler with little money and no future who will, at best soon be in jail; his family consists only of an impoverished mother living in Seoul; and, to top it all off, the rake has syphilis -- so if Chobong marries him she wouldn't just lose her innocence but would also be permanently soiled and scarred. Adding a complicating layer, Ch'ae has Taesu visit the clinic where Seungjae works when his syphilis flares up again shortly before the wedding, and asks him to treat it. Seungjae is, to say the least, torn about how to help the girl he's fond of -- and considers some extreme measures.
Readers might expect a slow fall for Chobong, as she and her family realize her husband isn't everything he claimed to be and as the law catches up to him, but Ch'ae doesn't go for the expected slow-weep tragedy. Taesu is even quite well-meaning, and is honestly head-over-heels for her, and Chobong tries to make the best of things and likes the new house they move into (well, except for their creepy tenant, Hyeonbgo ...). But of course things do go south -- in the blink of an eye, and almost immediately.
Desperate Chobong, who can't believe what has happened to her -- and a lot happened to her, in just one night -- decides to flee for Seoul. Running into her former employer, Jeho, on the way there seems like a stroke of good luck -- until, very quickly, it's not. He's sent his jealous wife away and ensconces Chobong in his Seoul home, the desperate girl having found herself in a compromised situation before she even knew what was happening. (Chobong really is a bit hapless.)
Like Taesu, Jeho isn't a bad guy. He wants to provide, and he is genuinely fond of Chobong (even laughing it off when he learns that she gave him syphilis). And when it turns out she's pregnant -- even when it's unclear who the father might be -- he takes care of her, and then the child too. But, of course, Chobong's luck doesn't last: Jeho loses interest, especially since she obsesses only over the baby, and when a way to escape this relationship presents itself, he jumps on it. Unfortunately, that makes for more or less the worst of all worlds for Chobong, who is plunged into her absolute nightmare. As Gyebong eventually says, understating things greatly: "my sister's situation is unusually difficult".
The only positive is that there's enough money to go around: she can send some to her family, allowing her mom to open a store that allows them to make enough to live reasonably comfortably off. And Chobong can bring sister Gyebong to Seoul, to finish school there -- though strong-willed, independent-minded Gyebong instead soon pays her own way by getting a department store job.
Over these past two years Gyebong and Seungjae have fallen in love, and when Seungjae finalizes plans to start work as a doctor in a clinic in Seoul it looks like everything can be resolved reasonably happily, with even Chobong released from her dire situation. They'll live together as a happy extended family -- Seungjae and Gyebong surely to inevitably marry, Chobong and adorable little Songhui there with them. But even as Seungjae and Gyebong picture a rosy future, events conspire that it can't quite play out that way. Ch'ae adds a nice spin to the somewhat open ending when, catastrophically, Seungjae realizes he and Gyebong haven't made their relationship clear enough to Chobong, and that, while she would be favorably inclined to seeing them together she's led to believe that, well, if there's nothing there, then surely he still harbors those old feelings she hasn't quite quelled either .....
Turbid Rivers is full of melodrama, but also surprisingly cheerful. Chobong wallows some in her miseries, but even the men who take advantage of her are, for the most part, quite generously inclined; none of them are, however, suitable partners. Except for Seungjae, the men in the novel are a pretty sorry lot -- and terrible for the women in their lives. Seungjae, meanwhile, seems almost too good to be true -- aside from his healthcare good works he also has a reclamation project he's working on, a girl he's been watching over for a few years and who, when he heads for Seoul, has just been sold by her parents into a brothel; the fifteen-year-old can still be saved, but already she looms as something of a threat to Gyebong -- the only person who seems to be capable of thinking straight.
Ch'ae is quite good with the relationships, even if most of the male-female ones have distinctly unpleasant sides (and, tellingly, the sex -- and a lot of everyday interaction -- tends to be very rough: Taesu's lover, for example enjoys biting him -- to the extent that: "Taesu's body was full of teeth marks"). Still, when he gets up-close -- which, fortunately, doesn't happen too often -- it doesn't work quite so well:
In a moment, their lips met, leaving no space between them. The passion that had been rearing wildly in their hearts like a wild horse at last found an exit and was pacified.Ch'ae also neglects parts of his story, such as what exactly Chobong's family knows about what happened to her, and her life in Seoul, and how they react to or feel about that. He moves well enough between the locales and main characters, but misses some of the connections along the way, losing sight of what is out of sight.
Along the way there are some nice incidental bits about family and familial love and obligations, and especially the role of parents. Despite all of Seungjae's entreaties, for example, he can't convince the parents of the girl he wants to save from selling her -- and gets a lesson from the (kindly) brothel-owner about why this is and what this means. Among the many failings of Chobong's family is the interesting point about why youngest child Byeongju isn't much interested in school -- as all his life he's overheard his mother berating his father:
What's the use of all your scholarly achievements ? You boast that you studied classics at the village school for a full fifteen years and on top of that you also had the benefit of the new education in the modern school system at primary school.His father's example of failure suggested education wasn't worth very much, and Byeongju:
believed studying hard had nothing to do with becoming a good man or making a lot of money. That was what he saw and it was indisputable.Yet little lessons like this don't always neatly flow with the story, feeling a bit tangential.
There's an agreeable -- though sometimes odd -- bluntness to much that is described ("no problems were found in his internal organs other than the involuntary evacuation of urine and feces"), and Ch'ae balances the dark with the light very well: there's a melodramatic feel to much of Turbid Rivers, but there's also considerable cheer. Chobong can be somewhat hapless, but Seungjae and Gyebong, in particular, are winning -- but also very human -- figures. And even the scoundrels generally have a good side to them; Hyeonbgo and Madam Kim (Taesu's landlady lover, who also spins false promises about him to Chobong's parents) are connivers, but they are the only figures who are truly evil. However, many others are presented -- mainly for egotistical reasons -- doing occasionally horrible things, including Chobong's parents or, for example, Jeho when he abandons Chobong.
Turbid Rivers is a big somewhat out-of-shape novel, but it doesn't even feel that sprawling. Ch'ae easily pulls the reader along, in best popular-fiction fashion -- at the expense of making a more profound story out of it. It's not entirely polished, but it is a solid novel, in every respect, and there are parts -- including the ending -- that go beyond the safe choices of popular fiction.
Turbid Rivers is an interesting and entertaining work that's held up quite well; not quite timeless, it is, however, considerably more than a period piece.
- M.A.Orthofer, 28 November 2016
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Korean author Ch'ae Man-Sik (채만식; 蔡萬植) lived 1902 to 1950.
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