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The Boozer By Choe Inhon

.. 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 Sgyng’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.

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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 economy 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 faade 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: New York, 1993. Eckert et al. Korea Old and New: A History.

Ilchokak Publishers: Seoul, 1990.

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