The Korean word han doesn’t have a true English language equivalent. A common definition is an emotional state of sadness, rage, and bitterness. To this, I would add a deep-rooted pessimism born out of historical memory. Han is frequently used to describe the emotions of Korean people who, having suffered under Japanese colonial rule for decades, watched as their nation was divided by a war between foreign powers. The Zainichi (Japanese of Korean descent) writer Yu Miri, whose mother was a refugee of the Korean War, understands han. There is something of the Russian novel—a nihilistic reconciling of the characters to their nationality—in her writing.
Yu Miri is an actress, playwright, and novelist. The End of August, translated by Morgan Giles, is her English-language follow-up to Tokyo Ueno Station, which won the 2020 National Book Award for Translated Literature. A New York Times profile, published after Yu and Giles received the award, described The End of August (which was then being translated) as an “autobiographical novel.” The sweeping, multigenerational family saga follows the life of Lee Woo-cheol, the author’s grandfather, from 1925 until his death in the late 1970s, but Yu Miri is focused less on any one character than on the history of modern-day Korea and the han of the Korean people.
In the present-day world of the novel, a character named Yu Miri commissions a shamanistic ritual to speak with the spirit of her deceased grandfather. She is preparing to run a marathon, and he, Lee Woo-cheol, had trained for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, only to lose his opportunity when the games were canceled. The mudangs channel the dead, and through them we learn the fates of not just Woo-cheol, but also his parents and siblings, friends, and neighbors. We begin The End of August understanding that it will be a tragedy, and this should—but doesn’t—diminish the emotional impact of what follows.
It’s important to acknowledge that Yu Miri has written a challenging book, huge in scope, 710 pages long, and with a complicated structure. She incorporates cultural, historical, and literary references that are not always obvious. Japanese and Korean words that will be unfamiliar to many English-language readers are left untranslated. The publisher does not include a glossary or notes, which arguably makes for a richer, more immersive reading experience, but which can also be disorienting. For example: Yu Miri explains the popular legend of Arang, a girl from the Miryang District who was betrayed by her nursemaid, raped, and murdered. Only by Googling the lyrics of Miryang Arirang, a song that repeatedly appears in the text, did I learn that it is the unofficial national anthem of the Korean people. This explains why the spirit of Arang is a character in the story, observing and even sometimes intervening.
The open world of the plot expands as Yu Miri adds points of view. The men of the Lee family, their wives and mistresses, the various offspring, Arang’s spirit, and even the neighboring women who gossip while washing laundry in the river—all get an opportunity to air their opinions. Yu Miri anchors this sprawling story to the Lee family. Lee Yong-ha, the family patriarch, worked as a traveling fortune-teller before settling down and marrying He-hyang, mother to his children, Woo-cheol, So-won, and Woo-gun. He-hyang pretends not to know about Yong-ha’s beautiful and obsessed mistress, Mi-ryeong, who is desperate to have his child. One of the most emotionally fraught scenes in a novel filled with tension and emotion occurs when the two women meet in the village bathhouse. He-hyang’s and Mi-ryeong’s thoughts race in tandem, merging into a stream-of-consciousness cacophony reminiscent of the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Desire and disappointment, jealousy and shame comingle in prose formatted like poetry.
The two women’s eyes met.
Don’t you dare look away from me. I’ve done nothing wrong, nothing!
Yu Miri widens her net, including the thoughts of the woman who runs the bathhouse and the confusion of He-hyang’s daughter, in a glorious piece of writing.
The women’s voices in The End of August are loud, but the actions of men cause the most damage. Yu Miri’s gift is in her ability to describe the fragility of human connections. So-won, Woo-cheol’s and Woo-gun’s sister, is a peripheral character without a narrative point of view, but her loss still cuts deeply—splintering the family and emotionally shattering the reader despite our knowing from the beginning (thanks to the mudangs) that she will drown. Her death is a dividing line for the Lee family. The men’s reaction to her loss, particularly Woo-cheol’s withdrawal from his new wife, shapes the future.
In addition to Ulysses, The End of August evokes the works of Tolstoy and parts of The Brothers Karamazov. It is an ambitious novel, but Yu Miri consistently delivers. Her ability to embed readers within the Lee family unit makes us care deeply about the people who move quickly on and off the page. It takes incredible skill and artistry to interweave so many stories into a lush, historical fabric.
A solid third of The End of August deals with politics and history as viewed through a human lens. When a character runs, which happens frequently in this family of runners, Yu divides her sentences with “in-hale ex-hale” to evoke the rhythm of the breath. It’s a neat trick, breaking up the character’s thoughts while imposing an onomatopoeic framework. Running becomes meditation, the thread that pulls Woo-cheol and other characters forward through their individual lives and collective history. Yu Miri synchronizes the timeline of the Japanese occupation of Korea and Manchuria, World War II, Korea’s independence and early Communist Movement, and the nation’s final ideological and geographic division with these rhythms. News about national heroes like Kim Won-bong (a hometown son) and his Korean Heroic Corp are recounted in the Korean bathhouse, away from the ears of Japanese neighbors. Newspaper articles, often censored, are passed around and read in secret. Young men leave to join the cause; the Japanese government enacts policies suppressing the Korean language and culture; Korean families are pressured to take on Japanese surnames. After the war, there is government infighting.
Namiko, an eleven-year-old village girl whose spirit crashes Yu’s family ritual, is one of the novel’s lenses. She, too, is from Miryang and grew up watching Woo-cheol running with his younger brother Woo-gun along the banks of the river. She is tricked into becoming a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers during World War II. The chapters describing her life in a brothel called “Paradise” are particularly brutal. Yu Miri juxtaposes scenes of horror with those of natural beauty as if to provide, if not hope, then at least a break in the otherwise relentless misfortune of her characters’ existences. When, on her first night at the Paradise, Namiko asks an older girl if she thinks things will be all right, her companion responds:
“… Maybe not everything will be all right, but our sights aren’t set too high, are they? So even if we prayed, ‘Hanunim, please, make all our wishes come true,’ I don’t think he’d think we are being too greedy. Look, it’s sunrise.”
At first, a white light like the light off an oil lamp traced a line between the sky and the water, surrounded by such overwhelming darkness it seemed like it couldn’t possibly win, but still, it played for time until seoseohi, seoseohi, little by little, the light soaked into the darkness and at that moment the golden disc of the sun emerged from the water, the positions of the light and darkness reversed [ . . . ]The first seagull flew out from the harbor to scout the golden road widening across the sea by the second; it screamed as if calling something in the water, kkireuk kkireuk kkireuk kkireuk!
Of course, nothing will be all right. Namiko will eventually run away from Paradise. Woo-cheol, fearing conscription into the Japanese army, will abandon his family and flee to Japan—the country of the occupiers he professes to hate. And Yu Miri will ultimately run her marathon, the impetus for this entire adventure, and commission a second ceremony to set her ancestors’ spirits to rest.
The act of running away inevitably forces you to run toward something, whether that be a place, a person, or a receding horizon. Yu Miri understands that history is a race without a finish line. In the final pages of The End of August, we circle back to the beginning, listening to the rhythmic “in-hale ex-hale” of a person running along the banks of the Miryang River. And the river, like this far-reaching, all-encompassing novel, is breathtaking.
The End of August by Yu Miri, translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles (Riverhead, 2023).
© 2023 by Tara Cheesman. All rights reserved.