Review – When Adam Opens His Eyes by Jang Jung-Il

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Review – When Adam Opens His Eyes by Jang Jung-Il (trans. Hwang Sun-Ae and Horace Jeffrey Hodges)

In a small Singapore bookstore (BooksActually, lovely place) I was intrigued to come across this novel, as I spent some time teaching in South Korea in 2013 and have always wanted to acquaint myself with the literary tradition. This book is also part of a more expansive Library of Korean Literature series, so I hope to read more of these titles in the future as I generate income.

Reading this book brought back memories, in particular one strong memory that I found a little troubling at the time, but definitely in line with some of the themes that I thought were present in this book, and seemingly still relevant now, considering that this book was published in 1990. I was in class teaching students in their last year of elementary school, and the subject of the lesson was about showing appreciation for the acquaintances one encounters in daily life, e.g. the clerk at the convenience store or the doorman in one’s apartment building. The warmer of the lesson involved a question: “If you had to get a gift for one of these people, what gift would you give them?” Most of the students had typical answers like flowers, cards, or candy, but one student in the back, who was somewhat of a class clown, said that it would be best to give this person death. Most students laughed and thought this was funny, and when I asked the student to elaborate on his answer a little more, he stated something along the lines that death would make everything in that person’s life much easier. Whether purely a joke or a reflection of the student’s state of mind, I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t push the tangent further. Nonetheless I did find the answer to be a little disturbing, especially coming from a sixth grader. 

Suicide has been a hot topic in Korea and anyone familiar with the Korean education system knows that middle school and high school are both trying and stressful times for Korean youth, as college entrance exams have a lot of weight in Korean society. It is common belief that one’s result of said exams determines the outlook of one’s future. My hagwon (which translates into English as cram school, or academy) opened right after students finished their classes in public school, and it was common for students to study until nine or ten in the evening, or split their afternoons between different hagwons. To give you an idea of how prevalent this is, there was an avenue in the city where I lived called Hagwon-ga, or “Hagwon Street,” that consisted of many different kinds of hagwons — math, English, even basketball hagwons. It is important to remember how young these kids are, and it’s very easy to see how this pressure to get ahead of the competition, at the price of one’s childhood, can negatively impact mental health.

This wistful, lonely novel gives us the story of a young Korean man — we never know his name but we get the biblical nickname ‘Adam’ — and a portrait of his life as a nineteen-year old transitioning from boy to man in Daegu, a major city in the southern part of the country. Adam enters a cram school with the goal of entering a top university, acquiescing to the desires of his mother, who works in an underground subway mall to pay for Adam’s tuition. Disillusioned with his prospects and feeling lonesome and stuck, Adam helplessly and apathetically searches for an exit from convention, using sex, music, reading, and different forms of loitering as ineffective devices. The book also chronicles Adam’s relationships with two girls also in this same transitionary juncture of life, the first being Eun-san, a highly motivated and ambitious poet looking to make a name for herself in her university’s literary scene, and the self-destructive, Walkman-wearing Hyun-Jae, a slightly younger high school girl, who like Adam regularly ditches cram school and is also lost, but to a much worse degree.

The young characters pay much allegiance to the musical figures of American counterculture, evidently rock and roll from the sixties was all the rage among Korean youth in the eighties. Allusions to Western art and literature are also present, but mainly we see the characters looking towards music for their values. In a scene early in the novel, Eun-sun and Adam write a poem together, a kind of manifesto to describe their feelings towards the “names beginning with J:”

I only trust those names beginning with ‘J.’

Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison,

Only those frightful singers.

Dying early,

Or taking drugs,

In this world,

Both are possible. (15)

The American rockstars are romanticized by the youths and this is where a lot of the sadness in the book comes from, the reader becomes aware that the characters are experiencing the same kind of “ennui” and “desire to be different” that everybody experiences in their teens, subjecting them to making dumb, albeit inevitable mistakes. Adam’s struggle isn’t that he suffers, but it is a struggle to suffer in a way that he is able to decide, in a way that his counterparts at the cram schools can’t. Yet this inherently American phenomenon, though attractive to the Korean youth, and symbolic of a changing Korea, does not yet smoothly translate between the two cultures. The idea of “kitsch” in the novel also warrants a closer examination.

The tambourine man, described by Adam as a business man gone crazy, banging a tambourine in a busy street, is a clear allusion to Bob Dylan’s 1965 ballad, and a beautiful metaphor for the message of the novel. The tambourine man suggests that the offerings of both East and West will drive you crazy. Yet we are posed with a question of whether or not crazy is a good thing. The tambourine man is clearly happy, but rejected by society. It again raises the question of mental health and the fact that everyone, no matter what inclination, is dealing with the harsh realities of life. We do see growth from Adam: though his actions take him into some dark places, in the end we do get the sense that he will be all right, as he is able to learn and become stronger from his mistakes. Hyun-Jae, in a very tragic turn, unfortunately does not. Overall I really enjoyed this book, and I recommend this book to anyone who wants a deeper perspective into the South Korean psyche, or just a bittersweet, heartache of a read.

Jang, Jung-Il. When Adam Opens His Eyes. Dalkey Archive Press, 2013. Print.

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