The Crucible (도가니), by Gong Jiyoung
This review is a bit different and perhaps more personal than the others I’ve written for this blog. I am currently in my mid-twenties, and it’s been about a year and a half since I moved out of my parents’ house. I was raised in a Korean-American/Canadian household, where I mainly spoke a garbled mixture of Korean and English to both my parents and brother. Nevertheless, I prided myself on the ability to speak, read, and write Korean, even if I had to resort to Google Translate when reading articles on the complex (and sensational) world that is Korean politics.
Since I moved out, I’ve felt a greater distance with my culture. As someone who grew up primarily in North America, of course, I’ve always felt some distance – I was never one of those kids who felt entirely at home in Korea or wherever I was living at the time. But moving out meant an end to my speaking Korean on a daily basis, to delicious authentic Korean food prepared for me at every meal, to the TV constantly blaring Korean game shows, dramas, and news programs. I’ve been feeling this distance more and more – and I’ve since made a resolution to read at least one book in Korean each year.
The first book I’ve picked out to fulfill my goal is Gong Jiyoung’s The Crucible, known in Korean as 도가니. I stumbled upon this book while perusing my brother’s bookshelf, and picked it because I’d heard of the movie, and of the author. The novel depicts the story of Kang In-Ho (portrayed in the movie by swoon-worthy K-drama star Gong Yoo), a new instructor at a school for hearing-impaired children who ends up uncovering a dark and disturbing truth: the school’s students are being routinely sexually, physically, and verbally abused by the school’s senior staff. This isn’t much of a spoiler, as this happens within the first few days of In-Ho’s placement; the book, while describing the children’s abuse in a harrowing manner, is more focused on the trial that follows.
Since I don’t believe myself to be 100% fluent in Korean, I found myself translating some words (especially legal jargon and some words describing anatomy), but overall, I found this novel startlingly easy to read, in terms of the vocabulary. There were often times when I could simply discern what a word meant by the context. It helps that 도가니 is a book that immediately sets an atmosphere for its story. The city where In-Ho is employed, the fictional city of Mujin, is appropriately covered in fog, the same fog that metaphorically covers the cases of abuse he is shocked to discover. While a somewhat obvious metaphor, I found the prose effective in quickly establishing an appropriate tone for the novel.
That being said, the novel was not easy to read in a lot of ways, but these parts are intentionally uncomfortable to read. As the trial progresses, the children are forced to describe the details of their abuse, which can be sickening. 도가니 is based on a true event that happened at a similar school in Gwangju, and when I read that the novel presents a toned down version of the real-life events, I was shocked.
While the novel is not a pleasant read, it sheds light on a variety of social problems in Korea. Although unfortunately I don’t believe an English translation of the book exists, I would recommend this book. I often become frustrated when people condense Korean culture into shallow pop songs, plastic surgery, and lightning-fast Internet; this novel offers great insight into contemporary Korean social problems.
YES OR NO?: YES. Although it can be somewhat predictable at times, this was an immersive, thought-provoking read. I only wish it were available in English so it could be more widely appreciated.