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Hwang Jungeun & the Intimacies of the Unseen

It wasn’t the kind of place you’d notice as a casual passer-by, but one you could only find if you were looking for it.

By Hwang Jungeun
Fiction | Fiction, hwang jungeun
November 30, 2018

Plastic 11: Spotlight on Korean novelist Hwang Jungeun and an excerpt from her book, One Hundred Shadows. Read the original Korean version below followed by a brief discussion.


Omusa was a shop that sold light bulbs.

It wasn’t the kind of place you’d notice as a casual passer-by, but one you could only find if you were looking for it.

Let’s pay a visit to Omusa.

When you alight in front of the cinema, having travelled there by subway or bus, your hundred-metre walk to the electronics market takes you past stalls displaying dried up lizards, alarm clocks, synthetic leather belts, batteries, shoes, and hats, before bringing you to the northern corner of Building A. When you turn right at the lighting shop that has a mirror fixed to a pillar outside, you enter the ground floor of the market, which functions as a car park, and there you encounter the old woman with bobbed grey hair who has constructed a lean-to for herself by stringing flattened cardboard boxes between the staircase and the ground, like a folding screen; you’ll invariably find her sitting on the ground a couple of metres from her makeshift home, watching the road as if waiting for someone. I once saw a passer-by offer her a custard bun; she regarded the pastry with an expression of faint puzzlement, reached out and took it as if it were some bizarre, potentially dangerous creature, tucked it between her knees and chest and turned her gaze firmly back to the road. You’ll walk past her, keeping the car park on your left and the shops selling lighting or tools on your right, turn into the first alley on the right and come across a blank-faced, middle-aged woman who has been doling out blood sausage in the same spot for twenty years, her ‘stall’ no more than a single oil drum. Further down the alley there’ll be glass cases containing pocket watches, copper alarm clocks, and tarnished silver spoons, with elderly men parked in front of them, dozing off in front of their wares. There’ll be a handful of tiny shops as well, one selling cigarettes, drinks, and boiled eggs, one selling spare parts, and one where you can get old radios repaired, each one so cramped that there is only room for a standing counter. You’ll turn down a still narrower alley, or more precisely, a dark passage you’ll initially mistake for a gap between two buildings, you’ll see a shack which dishes up rice and kimchi as a meagre takeaway lunch一across from it is Omusa. It’s a dingy old place that looks straight out of the nineteen-seventies. Its walls are lined with bundles of little yellow and blue bulbs, yet there is no bulb to light up the shop itself.


If the word was included in a picture dictionary, the entry would probably be illustrated by a scene like that of Omusa’s interior.

It’s jam-packed, I thought, and could think of no other word to describe it, so jam-packed was this shop I was seeing for the first time.

The old man who works there is in his seventies, with a full head of hair though it has long since turned grey. He has a wooden chair and a wooden desk, where he sits with his back to a shelf crammed full of corrugated cardboard boxes. He sits there lost in thought, gazing absent-mindedly at something or other, until a customer comes in and asks for a certain type of bulb. Then, without hurrying, but without dithering either, he slowly pushes his chair back and gets to his feet, gropes along the shelf until he gets to the right section, slides one of the boxes out as though removing a brick from a wall, sets it down on the desk and flips back the worn-out lid, then shuffles over to a different shelf to fetch a small plastic pouch which he opens with care, taking his time, then slips his right hand into the cardboard box and grabs a handful of fingernail-sized bulbs which he drops one by one into the plastic pouch, its round opening ready to receive, like putting rice puffs into the mouth of an eager baby sparrow, as I happened to hear another customer remark one time when I was waiting my turn.

Even if you rushed over to Omusa on urgent business and hurriedly told the old man what you needed, time flowed at his pace only, so customers would end up having to kill time by ogling Omusa’s jam-packed interior or snacking on some boiled eggs from the shop next door. The old man, though slow, moved with great concentration, and this measured economy of his kept the customers from trying to rush him. Those who were particularly impatient might grumble a little, but they never asked him to hurry up, and they never took their business elsewhere. The boxes at Omusa had been there for so long, they contained bulbs that could no longer be found anywhere else. If you looked closely enough you could see that some of the boxes had little pen marks on them, but the majority were unmarked, yet somehow the old man at Omusa was never thrown; no matter what kind of bulb you asked for, his slow steps would take him in a direct line to the correct section of shelf.

What will happen to all the bulbs when the old man dies? Without him, who will possibly manage to fathom out which bulbs are where? Won’t whoever takes over end up chucking out rare bulbs just because they’re old? Each time I visited Omusa such thoughts would leave me feeling at a loss, but some of our own customers voiced similar thoughts about the repair shop and Mr. Yeo, and every time they did I was reminded of the repair shop’s own history.

One day I went down to buy some bulbs and both the old man and the shelves were gone.

Only the dark walls remained, enclosing an empty space.

He’s passed away, I thought.

I came back to the repair shop and broke the news, which left Mr. Yeo looking troubled for some time after. The bulb I’d wanted to buy was no longer being manufactured, so the appliance that required it had to be sent back as it was, without being repaired. After those bulbs stopped being made, there was a notable increase in the number of repairs that required them, and Mr. Yeo and I often remarked how strange it was that you always notice something more when it’s gone, how sad it all was.


Excerpted from One Hundred Shadows, originally 百의 그림자 (민음사, 2010). Translated by Jung Yewon and published by Tilted Axis (2016).

Jung Yewon is a freelance interpreter and translator. Her translations include One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon, Mannequin by Ch’oe Yun, and No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin. Her translation of Jung Young Moon’s Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River is forthcoming in 2019.


오무사는 전구를 판매하는 가게였다.

얼핏 지나가면서 우연히 볼 수 있는 곳이 아니고 그런 가게가 거기에 있다는 것을 알아야 갈 수 있는 가게였다.

오무사에 가보자.

전철을 타든 버스를 타든 도심 영화관 앞에서 내려서 백여 미터 떨어진 전자상가를 바라보며 걷다보면 마른 도마뱀, 자명종, 합성피혁으로 만든 혁대, 고무제품, 건전지, 구두, 모자를 늘어놓고 파는 좌판들을 지나서 가동의 북쪽 모서리에 다다랐다. 바깥기둥에 거울을 덧댄 조명 상점을 오른쪽으로 끼고돌아서 상가의 주차공간으로 사용되는 일층으로 들어서면 계단과 바닥 사이에 병풍처럼 종이상자를 세워서 직각삼각형의 공간을 만들어두고 사는 노인을 만나게 되는데 그녀는 하얗게 센 머리카락을 짧은 단발로 자른 모습으로 비가 올 때를 제외하고는 항상 자신의 거주지에서 이 미터 정도 떨어진 바닥에 앉아서 누군가를 기다리듯 큰 길을 바라보고 있었다. 나는 언젠가 지나는 길에 어느 행인이 그녀에게 빵을 나누어주는 것을 본 적이 있었다. 그녀는 그가 내민 빵을 물끄러미 바라보고 있다가 더없이 생소하다는 듯 빵을 받아서 무릎과 가슴 사이에 끼워두고 다시 큰 길 쪽으로 눈을 돌렸다. 그녀의 거주지를 지나서 왼쪽으로는 주차장을, 오른쪽으로는 조명 가게나 공구 상점들을 두고 걷다가 오른쪽으로 첫 번째 골목이 나타날 때 발길을 틀어서 그 길로 접어들면, 이십 년째 그 자리에서 별다른 도구도 없이 드럼통 하나를 세워두고 무표정한 얼굴로 순대를 찌고 있는 아주머니를 만날 수 있었고, 회중시계, 구리 자명종, 낡은 손목시계, 빛바랜 은수저를 유리장 안에 진열해두고 졸고 있는 남자들 앞을 지나 담배와 음료와 삶은 계란을 파는 구멍가게를 지나서 부품상점이나 구식라디오를 손보는 수리실 등을 지나가게 되어 있었는데, 어느 곳이든 책상 하나 더는 들어갈 여지가 없을 만큼 비좁았다. 그런 가게들 틈으로 난 골목, 이라기보다는 건물과 건물 사이의 틈 정도로 보이는 어둡고 좁다란 통로로 들어서면, 오른편에 간판도 탁자도 없이 점심배달 메뉴로 백반 한 가지를 만들어서 파는 허름한 식당이 있고, 그 맞은편에 오무사가 있었다. 칠십 년대 이후로 손을 본 적이 없는 듯 낡고 어두컴컴한 곳이었다. 전구를 판매하는 가게였으나 가게를 밝히는 전구라고는 벽에 걸린 노랗고 푸른 알전구 다발뿐이었다.


라는 말의 이미지 사전을 만든다면 아마도 그런 광경일 것이 틀림없었다.

그야말로 빽빽하다.

라고 생각한 뒤엔 아무런 말도 떠올릴 수 없을 만큼 눈앞이 빽빽했다.

그 속에서 전구를 파는 노인은 숱 많은 머리칼이 모두 하얗게 세어버린 칠십대 노인이었다. 그는 벽돌만한 골판지 상자들이 빼곡하게 들어찬 선반을 등진 채로 나무 책상과 걸상을 놓아두고 앉아 있었다. 침침하게 머리 위를 밝히고 있는 알전구 불빛 속에서 그는 언제나 무언가를 들여다보며 골똘히 생각에 잠겨 있다가 손님이 찾아와서 어떤 종류의 전구를 달라고 말하면 대답도 없이 서서히 걸상을 밀며 일어났다. 서두르는 법 없이 그렇다고 망설이는 법도 없이 선반의 한 지점으로 부들거리며 다가가서, 어느 것 하나 새 것이 아닌 골판지나 마분지 상자들 틈에서 벽돌을 뽑아내듯 천천히 상자 하나를 뽑아내고 그것을 책상으로 가져와서 일단 내려둔 뒤엔 너덜너덜한 뚜껑을 젖혀두고, 이번엔 다른 선반으로 걸어가서 손바닥만한 비닐봉투 한 장을 가지고 책상으로 돌아온 뒤, 시간을 들여 정성껏 봉투를 벌려서 입구를 동그랗게 만들어 둔 다음에, 오른손을 상자에 넣어서 손톱만한 전구를 한 움큼 쥐고 나서, 왼손에 들린 채로 대기하고 있는 봉투 속으로 한 번에 한 개씩, 언젠가 내가 다른 손님들 틈에서 순서를 기다리고 있다가 재미있게 얻어들은 바에 의하면, 제비 새끼 주둥이에 뻥 과자 주듯, 떨어뜨렸다.

바쁜 일로 서두르며 오무사까지 걸어갔어도 그거 주세요, 하고 난 뒤로는 오로지 그의 패턴으로만 시간이 흘렀기 때문에 오무사를 방문한 손님들은 입구에서 넋을 놓고 선 채로 가게 안을 들여다보거나, 근처 구멍가게에서 삶은 계란을 까먹으며 기다렸다가 전구를 받아가곤 했다. 노인은 느릿해도 대단히 집중해서 움직였으며 그 움직임엔 기품마저 배어 있어서, 손님의 처지에선 재촉할 틈이 없었다. 대단히 성급한 사람 중에 몇 마디 투덜거리는 경우는 있어도 다른 곳으로 가버리는 경우는 없었다. 오무사의 상자들이 워낙 오래 전부터 쌓여 왔던 것들이라 어디서도 구해볼 수 없는 전구를 거기서는 구할 수 있었기 때문이었다. 잘 보면 볼펜으로 조그만 표시가 되어 있는 상자들도 있었지만 표시조차 없는 상자들이 더 많아서, 어디에 무엇이 있는지 아는 사람은 그 곳의 주인뿐이었고, 사실 오무사의 노인은 어떤 전구를 달라고 해도 헤매는 법 없이 곧장, 느릿느릿하기는 해도, 그 전구가 담긴 상자가 있는 선반을 향해 걸어갔다.

할아버지가 죽고 나면 전구는 다 어떻게 되나. 그가 없으면 도대체 어디에 무엇이 있는지 누가 알까. 오래 되어서 귀한 것을 오래 되었다고 모두 버리지는 않을까. 오무사에 다녀오고 나면 이런 생각들로 나는 막막해지곤 했는데, 수리실을 찾아오는 사람들 중엔 수리실과 여 씨 아저씨를 두고 이것과 비슷한 말을 하는 사람들이 더러 있어서 나는 그 때마다 수리실의 내력을 생각해보고는 했다.

어느 날 전구를 사러 내려갔더니 노인도 선반도 없었다.

텅 비어서, 어두운 벽만 남아 있었다.


하고 생각했다.

수리실로 돌아가서 소식을 전하자, 오무사 노인이 돌아가셨나보다고 여 씨 아저씨도 한동안 착잡한 기색을 감추지 못했다. 사고자 했던 전구는 더는 재고가 없던 것이라 이 전구가 필요한 수리는 하지 못하고 돌려보냈다. 재고가 없고 나니 같은 전구를 필요로 하는 수리가 부쩍 늘어나서 여 씨 아저씨와 나는 이상하다고, 드는 자리는 몰라도 나는 자리는 이렇게 표가 나는 법이라고, 모든 게 아쉽다고, 말을 나누는 일이 종종 있었다.


Hwang came through AAWW’s New York space with Song Kyung-dong this fall thanks to Korean Literature Now and we spoke with her briefly about her impressions and practice.

how is here: It was a very long journey, especially for my spine.

what are your language(s): Before writing a novel, I didn’t know I could speak. I was quite isolated. After ten years of focusing on the possibilities of storytelling itself, I’m now most interested in the everyday language that Korean people speak一the banality of language, after Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil一and how it operates on our society.

where do you write: Korean writers often work in cafes, but I need an enclosed space where I can concentrate. And because of chronic back pain, I need a chair I can sit in for 8 hours a day. So I write in my home.

who do you read: It’s hard to name just one, but I read a lot about humanism and sociology. Lately I’ve also been reading about the era of Japan’s colonization of Korea, the architectures and influences of that time.

what is “political”: Readers consider my writing political because of One Hundred Shadows. When I was writing that novel, there was an electronics market undergoing redevelopment which displaced all the building’s residents. A fire was lit to push out the residents protesting their eviction and six people died, including one police officer [read more of Hwang’s description of this incident]. This was a political instance because the government was explicitly involved in those deaths一they were political deaths. I would write in the mornings and then attend the evening protests around the old market space. I interviewed families of the victims of the fire, people who had everything taken away from them by the government, and those stories colored my text, though it was impossible for me to write directly about them this, as a witness. It was a miserable time, so I wanted to write something that could be warmer, more gentle.