By Ch'oe Inhon "Whenever a shot of that rotgut washed the inside of his ever insatiable mouth he knew just how much more dense his life was going to get" (Ch'oe, 109). Ch'oe Inho's The Boozer offers a dismal glimpse into the life of the lower classes during the period of Korean modernization. Although "The Boozer" was written in the 1960s, the story does not provide an allegorical account of particular events during the authoritarian rule of Park Chung Hee. Rather, Ch'oe uses the setting of a working class community to convey the suffering of an orphan boy over the loss of his parents during one of his escapades into the tavern life of the town. In addition, Ch'oe withholds from the reader the most important piece of information, that the boy indeed has no living parents, until the end of the story. Through a clever manipulation of information, The Boozer accomplishes the latter task, while giving us a vivid sense of the boy's traumatic memory of his parents' deaths and of the desolate life of the working class community. In the first few pages of the story, we are lead to believe that the boy is looking for his father to call him home to the bedside of his dying wife. The boy informs the drinkers in the tavern that he has seen his mother's condition worsen and that she has sent him to get her husband. But even before this, Ch'oe has already dropped a subtle hint that the father is gone. Here is how the boy describes his father: "Why, you'd know him! He has a great big mole over one eye. He always smelled like onions, and he always went around with cloves of garlic in his back pocket. And, they said he always cried when he drank." (104) The boy starts his description in the present tense and shifts to the past tense as he recounts details about his father's habits. This passage alone casts the first shadow of doubt on the "living" status of the father. In particular, the phrase "they said he...." suggests that the boy experienced his father's death at an early age and knows him partly from reputation. This use of the past tense may be too subtle to notice upon a first reading and even the impression that the father may be long gone is erased as the boy later speaks about his father in the present tense. There are numerous other indicators that mislead us into believing the authenticity of the boy's mission. For example, the boy is quite determined in his mission. "I'll look all night.... If I can just find my father, everything will be okay. My father's different from you people. Father may be a boozer, but there's nothing he can't do if he sets his mind to it. You know, once he took copper and made it into gold. Gold!" (105). In this passage we also encounter the boy's genuine admiration for his father and the security the thought of his father provides, as if the latter were alive and well, waiting for his son to find him. In addition, he shows concern about his father's sobriety, so that the latter can face the serious moment of his wife's death in full possession of his faculties. There is one moment where it appears that the father may have already returned to his wife and, after her death, gone back out to drink: "Your father left, kid. Said he was going to the widow's tavern" (107). The inconsistency here is that the boy is unperturbed by the barmaid's usage of the word "widow." But, given his drunken state, we may forgive the boy for overlooking this. Later, as the boy continues wandering through the town, we are informed that "He knew well where it was he was going to. He had never forgotten this route, no matter how drunk he got" (112). This is the first direct hint that the boy's actions are not spontaneous attempts to find his father but a part of a well-established routine that he follows after a day of drinking. But the following sentence reverts the reader's attention to the search for the father: "What could Father be doing while Mother is heading to her death?" (112). By the end of the story, and after many subtle hints and inconsistencies, we are left with the uncomfortable thought that we have missed something. It is past the taverns' closing time when the boy visits his aunt. Why has he not found his father? Was he really looking for him? Why hasn't he returned to his home, to his dying mother? It is not until the end that we are given an obvious hint that something in the boy's story is wrong. When he visits his aunt, the boy says "Auntie. Please don't die before I grow up. Grit your teeth and bear it." Only at this point are we given a hint that the boy has survived the death of his family members, or perhaps even his friends, that maybe his aunt is the only living relative he has left. His parents are gone, his siblings are gone, lost, or nonexistent. As far as we can tell, the boy has no close ties with any relative because even his aunt treats him more like a pest which must be disposed of as soon as possible, and as the boy leaves her house she bids him "Good-bye. And don't come back!" (114). Prior to this incident, Ch'oe makes no obvious references to the loss of the boy's parents. A few lines later, we find out that the boy is returning to his orphanage. The search for the father was just a façade. With this in mind, a closer reading of The Boozer reveals that the boy's desperate search for his father is a manifestation of the boy's psychological trauma caused by the untimely deaths of his parents. The boy has a vivid memory of his mother's death, of her bloody vomiting (105). In all likelihood, this was followed by a desperate attempt to resolve his psychological shock by means of looking for his father, the only person who could offer him security and comfort at that time, the only one who could make everything "okay." We are not told the details of his father's death, but he too is now deceased and the boy is left alone in an orphanage. Throughout The Boozer, the boy keeps reliving the death of his mother and father and seems to be in a state of permanent denial. His drinking appears to be a regular practice of dealing with his traumatic memories. The boy enters taverns where "the latch was familiar" and where he drinks shots "like a master at sleight-of-hand." The drinkers in the taverns know the boy as well. One of them, Whiskers, takes advantage of the boy's psychosis and amuses himself by claiming he has seen his father that night and even had a drink with him. Curiously enough, the boy does not inquire as to where his father has gone, briefly mentions his mother's violent illness again, and, just as we would expect of any of the drunks in the story, he focuses his attention on the bottle of "pellucid rotgut soju." The boy described in The Boozer is a realistic figure and we must ask what type of society would bring him to such a tragic state. It would be overinterpretation to force a tight correlation between the story and the time it was written (1966). There is no direct relation of characters or events with specific events of the age of post-Korean War development (1953-1970s), but the story does provide an image of the harsh lives led by working class families during this time. The connection between the lives of typical working class Koreans and those of the characters is not as direct as in Hwang Sõgyõng's A Dream of Good Fortune. Ch'oe Inho links real life and the life of the drinkers in The Boozer concisely and subtly with images of the depressed, drinking men, and their dark, dank, dusty taverns. The boy's neighborhood is a depressing settlement made up most likely of poor factory laborers. Their hard work is inadequately rewarded, their lives bland and routine, without hope of improvement. In the taverns the atmosphere is filled with bitter cynicism, exemplified by one drinker's announcement that "the world goes around to get a drink." Although the taverns are not described in detail, one image is enough to convey the stifling atmosphere of hopelessness that pervades their interior: a mere thirty-watt light bulb does a "fair job at illumination." In one such tavern, the drinkers curse "....their lives, their hopes for the future, their lousy salaries...." (106) Drinking is the only way these people find to pass the time between one workweek and the next, a way to escape the reality of their misfortunes. Indeed, Eckert et al in Korea Old and New: A History argue that one of the major forces sustaining the growth of South Korean
was cheap labor at the cost of deplorable treatment of the workers:....the country's low standard of living in the early stages of the growth process; the workers' low pay relative to business profits; poor working conditions; the longest average work week in the world; the workers' forbearance in the face of such hardships, especially in the 1960s and early 1970s (Eckert et al. 402-403) When workers, for example, began to demand better conditions and more freedom in the late 1960s and 1970s, the labor laws were structured into an elaborate system of restraint on union activity, and the workers themselves were ruthlessly put down by police and other security forces (Eckert et al. 405). Unfortunately, it seems that there is no escape from the resentments and misery of the men's lives other than drink. In some ways, the boy is already very similar to the drinking men. When one of the drinkers, the one-armed man, seizes the boy and brings his "knife-hand" to the boy's throat, what the boy feels is not horror but "a light pang coming to the area of his throat and.... the sound of grieving for an easy life." The boy feels the despair in his life, just as the drinking men do, just as his own father must have felt. Ironically, even though the boy cannot accept his parents' deaths, he is completely desensitized to the deaths of others. After the one-armed man takes his own life, the boy feels no remorse, but instead calls him a "Stupid asshole." He shows similar insensitivity and unconcern for the sleeping drunk he robs just moments later. He knows the man will probably freeze to death before morning but makes no effort to bring the man into shelter and is fully absorbed in his task of pilfering through the man's pockets. Such impersonal insensitivity to the loss of human life is an unfortunate but necessary part of everyday living in the boy's community. The only structural unit in his society that is capable of providing protection and security is the family. But even this is denied to the boy and it is instead replaced by psychological trauma as he continues to relive his parents' deaths. Ch'oe Inho's The Boozer provides us not only with an image of working class poverty, but also explores the impossible task of resolving the deaths of the parents of a young boy. However, Ch'oe's greatest accomplishment here lies in his disguise of the fact that the boy is without parents. This required the use of subtle clues, barely perceptible upon first reading, and these hints are obscured by a highly credible façade that Choe is able to maintain until the very end. Works Cited Ch'oe Inhon. "The Boozer." Land of Exile: Contemporary Korean Fiction. Bruce Fulton, Ju-Chan Fulton, and Marshall R. Pihl, eds. M.E. Sharpe, Incorporated: , 1993. Eckert et al. Korea Old and New: A History. Ilchokak Publishers: Seoul, 1990.