THE BOOK OF MASKS by Sun-won Hwang


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A first American collection of 15 stories, published in South Korea in 1976: small but pivotal moments that are always evocative, although sometimes enigmatic. The title story, a short-short, introduces the theme of disguise and transformation: a young soldier is killed--""His blood soaked into the earth and became earth. The dead soldier had been a farmer, and for him soil was life itself."" After several reincarnations, he enters the one-armed body of the man who bayoneted him to death and goes looking for work, unaware that an arm is missing. Other stories effectively work variations on this theme: ""Shadows of a Sound"" (about a narrator who returns, grown, to his childhood town and remembers a forgotten boyfriend, a bellringer who is now dead) qualifies its sad tone with a lyrical epiphany; in ""Nature,"" a blooming young love is threatened when a friend tells the narrator that ""men are like nature and women are nothing but cute little animals that live there""; in ""A Tree, a Rock and,"" a man filled with regret and inconsequence inspects a great ginkgo tree and finds peace; ""Folding the Umbrella"" juxtaposes an old man's awkward transition from an independent life to his meditations on the fish in his aquarium; and ""The Night He Came Late"" is an absurdist parable about a man who must wander the city each day and spend the 4,000 won his woman gives him. Other pieces, though they offer vivid portraits of muted or traumatic dissociation (more masks), feel simply too arbitrary or understated. Stories that work by indirection and suggestion, although delicate and metaphorical.

Pub Date: Aug. 20th, 1989
Publisher: Readers International--dist. by Consortium (213 West 4th St., St. Paul, MN 55101)