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‘Mater2-10’: A century of Korean history

‘Mater 2-10’, Sok-yong’s work of magical realism, could become the first Korean novel to win the International Booker

Korean writer Hwang Sok-yong in Italy, 2017. Photo: Getty Images

By Aditya Mani Jha

LAST PUBLISHED 22.04.2024  |  04:00 PM IST

The Korean writer Hwang Sok-yong’s Mater 2-10 (translated into English by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae, nominated for the International Booker prize last week) derives its name from the M-2 series of locomotives. These operated mostly in North Korea during Japan’s colonisation of Korea (1910-45). The history of this train is so perfectly intertwined with the national trajectory of Korea that Sok-yong uses it as a metonym, almost, for the region and its people. Across nearly 500 impeccably-structured pages, Mater 2-10 tells us the story of the Japanese occupation through three generations of a family associated with the Japanese-introduced railways.

Sok-yong is one of Korea’s best-known writers globally and Mater 2-10 is his magnum opus, a masterpiece in the making for over three decades. It is to Korea what One Hundred Years of Solitude is to Colombia or Midnight’s Children is to India, a magical realism-infused masterpiece that takes you on a guided tour through a country’s most important historical moments.

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Translators Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae are quite aware of both the novel’s significance and its political scaffolding. In their thoughtfully written translator’s note, they mention how and why they chose to retain certain Korean words or names, especially in cases where said words or names were suppressed for political reasons.

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The book begins by introducing us to the youngest member of the family, Yi Jino, a factory worker in his mid-50s who has staged a sit-in atop a catwalk on an industrial chimney. As Yi Jino’s precarious protest reaches its 100th day, he begins to be visited by an array of hallucinatory visions, including ghosts of his ancestors, especially his great-grandfather Baekman, who rose from abject poverty to become a railway worker.

Baekman’s sons Ilcheol (Jino’s grandfather) and Icheol (Jino’s great-uncle) make contrasting choices while growing up amidst the Japanese occupation. Ilcheol becomes a locomotive engineer while Icheol joins a resistance militia.

Since the family remembrances are happening via ghosts, there is a lot of room for the kind of playful, sometimes morbid magic realism at which Sok-yong excels. Omens and foreshadowing abound. As a flood adds to the family’s misery, a deceased character appears on a boat and rescues the survivors. Later, various family members remember the event differently, emphasising Sok-yong’s own term for the novel’s style: “mindam realism" (mindam is “halfway between folklore and plain talk").

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Whenever the scenes from the 1920s and 1930s begin to overwhelm the reader with their profusion of details and new characters, Sok-yong yanks us back to the present with Yi Jino’s sit-in. These scenes are written in with casual sarcasm style to distinguish them from the earnest episodes of the past. The writer clearly takes great delight in describing things like the improbable physics of disposing Yi Jino’s mile-high faeces and urine. And while these little asides are amusing enough, it’s the novel’s considered, precise and harrowing descriptions of Korea’s colonial past that will stay with the reader.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.