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Review: Coming-of-age book untangles protagonist's inner self

"Dok-dae" by Kim Dong-ha / Courtesy of gasse

By Park Han-sol

Making up the book's title as well as the protagonist's first name, the term "dok-dae" is a Korean word that can also mean a one-on-one meeting. Kim Dong-ha's novel candidly follows Dok-dae's own "private consultation" with his inner self, as the boy sees his mother leave him and witnesses the incompetence of his father, highlighted by his domineering grandmother.

After his mom, subject to years of tyranny and conflict with her mother-in-law, runs away from home, his dad abruptly decides to remodel the old house. As the interior is torn down, Dok-dae also falls apart.

Seeing his family and his home being ripped apart throws him into a state of confusion and misery. In the chaotic, complex world of adults, the only thing the young Dok-dae can do is be engulfed by his hatred of his grandmother, who was brutal to his mother, and be overcome with guilt over the unexpected death of his grandfather. These feelings often manifest as merciless, abusive behavior toward small animals and insects.

In the end, however, his house does not disappear into thin air, but instead is rebuilt. As its interiors take new shapes and forms, meaningful changes also occur in the protagonist's perception, bringing about his moral growth made possible only by dealing with emotional pain.

The boy's cousin, Ho-jae, released from prison after being locked up for assault, has the largest influence on his inner development. Through the bond they build, Dok-dae muses on the true nature of sin, guilt and violence.

Filling the absence of Dok-dae's mother, the cousin allows the boy to explore his clumsy attempts at "playing" grown-up. Initially viewed only as a tough-looking role model, Ho-jae is also a young man in his 20s, who is not immune to his own feelings of fear and weakness.

The remodeling of the house, which takes place throughout the entire novel, comes to an end with the main room, a place where all family members slept, left intact. Dok-dae initially holds a grudge against his father for trying to erase the traces of his mother, but gradually accepts that this may be his dad's own way of dealing with the traumatic family breakup in the vague hope for his wife's return.

Found during the remodeling process is an old family album. Looking at his grandmother browsing through the album, Dok-dae sees a lonely, withered body and remembers some of the fond moments he shared with her.

He then comes to realize that the resentment and rage he harbored towards her is actually directed at himself, filled with helplessness and guilt.

He compares the sense of hatred to an elastic band, one that continues to pull you in despite your attempt to escape it. "You can't move forward surrounded by hatred. You either need to make peace with it or cut off the rubber band. That's when you can start drawing your future."

The author Kim Dong-ha has written stories while holding temporary jobs and working as a day laborer before his literary debut in 2012. Nominated for the Honbul and Joongang Literary Awards, "Dok-dae" is a novel with noticeably autobiographical elements that Kim worked on and polished for eight years.


"Dok-dae" by Kim Dong-ha / Courtesy of gasse

By Park Han-sol

Making up the book's title as well as the protagonist's first name, the term "dok-dae" is a Korean word that can also mean a one-on-one meeting. Kim Dong-ha's novel candidly follows Dok-dae's own "private consultation" with his inner self, as the boy sees his mother leave him and witnesses the incompetence of his father, highlighted by his domineering grandmother.

After his mom, subject to years of tyranny and conflict with her mother-in-law, runs away from home, his dad abruptly decides to remodel the old house. As the interior is torn down, Dok-dae also falls apart.

Seeing his family and his home being ripped apart throws him into a state of confusion and misery. In the chaotic, complex world of adults, the only thing the young Dok-dae can do is be engulfed by his hatred of his grandmother, who was brutal to his mother, and be overcome with guilt over the unexpected death of his grandfather. These feelings often manifest as merciless, abusive behavior toward small animals and insects.

In the end, however, his house does not disappear into thin air, but instead is rebuilt. As its interiors take new shapes and forms, meaningful changes also occur in the protagonist's perception, bringing about his moral growth made possible only by dealing with emotional pain.

The boy's cousin, Ho-jae, released from prison after being locked up for assault, has the largest influence on his inner development. Through the bond they build, Dok-dae muses on the true nature of sin, guilt and violence.

Filling the absence of Dok-dae's mother, the cousin allows the boy to explore his clumsy attempts at "playing" grown-up. Initially viewed only as a tough-looking role model, Ho-jae is also a young man in his 20s, who is not immune to his own feelings of fear and weakness.

The remodeling of the house, which takes place throughout the entire novel, comes to an end with the main room, a place where all family members slept, left intact. Dok-dae initially holds a grudge against his father for trying to erase the traces of his mother, but gradually accepts that this may be his dad's own way of dealing with the traumatic family breakup in the vague hope for his wife's return.

Found during the remodeling process is an old family album. Looking at his grandmother browsing through the album, Dok-dae sees a lonely, withered body and remembers some of the fond moments he shared with her.

He then comes to realize that the resentment and rage he harbored towards her is actually directed at himself, filled with helplessness and guilt.

He compares the sense of hatred to an elastic band, one that continues to pull you in despite your attempt to escape it. "You can't move forward surrounded by hatred. You either need to make peace with it or cut off the rubber band. That's when you can start drawing your future."

The author Kim Dong-ha has written stories while holding temporary jobs and working as a day laborer before his literary debut in 2012. Nominated for the Honbul and Joongang Literary Awards, "Dok-dae" is a novel with noticeably autobiographical elements that Kim worked on and polished for eight years.


박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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