Familiar Things
by Hwang Sok-yong

Nothing prepares the reader for the strange, otherworldly beauty and heartbreaking sadness of this novel by Hwang Sok-yong, arguably South Korea’s most renowned author.

Familiar Things opens with a slow, measured, wide-angled sweep. It lingers over images of a sunset before slowly zooming in on a rubbish truck racing along a riverside expressway, and then a young boy who is standing in the back of the truck.

It’s as if Hwang is urging us to look at the world around us before bringing his characters into focus, gradually divulging snippets of information about the boy and his mother, who were joined by five other people who climbed up into the truck at a waste-collection site.

But then the hypnotic power of Hwang’s measured, unpretentious prose kicks in. There’s a reason Hwang is one of the most read and honoured writers in his homeland as well as the best known internationally. As he writes of “vehicles swallowed up by clouds of dust” and of the “tall silver grass swaying on the banks of the stream in the dusky light”, readers may feel, just like the boy – as yet unnamed – “that they had suddenly arrived in a faraway land”, instead of a rubbish dump on Flower Island, close to the city.

It is also one of the marvels of this unusual narrative that this magical sense of being suspended in a faraway land persists even as Hwang writes of the smell that assails these people in the back of the truck as they draw close to their destination, “a stench so bad, they could hardly breathe”.

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That sense remains even as the brutal hardships endured by those who live in the shanty town around the rubbish dump loom into view. The new arrivals are beset by swarms of flies “clinging to their faces and forearms and clothing in the dark, boldly alighting on the corners of their mouths and eyes, and probing at them with cold, sticky tongues”. The flies and the unbearably foul odour endure as fixtures in their new lives in this strange universe, where they must scavenge for food among the city’s waste.

The boy, who we learn goes by the name Bugeye, is 13 but looks older. Having left school halfway through the fifth grade, the same year his father went missing, he had been helping his street vendor mother eke out a meagre living in their city slum – which, like most of the places and characters in this narrative, is never named. Bugeye owes his reluctant arrival at the dump to his mother’s burgeoning friendship with a man he instinctively dislikes and nick-names Baron Ashura, after the villain from Japanese manga series Mazinger Z (1972).

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A crew leader in this sector of the dump, the Baron has promised Bugeye’s mother a rent-free shack. He greets them on arrival, immediately commanding other inhabitants of the sprawling shantytown to scavenge materials and start building a home for them next to his own. No detail of the shack’s speedy construction or the scavenged materials from which it is formed – or, indeed, the discarded food salvaged from the dump to make their dinner of “Flower Island stew” – is spared in Hwang’s meticulously detailed telling.

While the reader may gag at the realities of Bugeye’s new life, they are swept up along with him in a kind of childlike wonder. As Bugeye joins his mother and the other rubbish pickers who leap up onto the perilously high piles of trash dumped every day, he quickly grasps the perils along with the intense competition at play in this group under the Baron’s command.

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The politics, logistics and economics of rubbish, along with its unique and mystifying physical properties, are a dynamic and inescapable force in this tale, which sees Bugeye trailing in his mother’s wake, knee-deep in rotting waste as they work together, from dawn to afternoon and often on into the night.

But Bugeye starts excusing himself from the afternoon shift, teams up with the Baron’s motherless son and is introduced to the ghostly dokkaebi, goblins from Korean legend, who say they have been living on the land Flower Island now occupies – former farmland – but are ill and in need of help.

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The boys make offerings to the spirits and the dokkaebi repay them handsomely, their future looking brighter until, one day, after a long cold winter, tragedy strikes. But it is only at the close of the novel that the title, Familiar Things, registers its full impact.

The book’s power lies in the way Hwang summons the ghosts of the past to expose the perils of rapid, untrammelled economic change. He never loses sight of all that is potentially good in humans as he highlights the social ills that lurk behind a wealthy, throwaway society.

And while it invokes South Korean history, culture, mythology and folklore, this slim novel is unmistakably universal in its reach, contemporary in its appeal, and packs an emotional punch that reverberates long after reading.