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Missed Connections - ‘Retreat’ by Pak Kyongni

By Michelle Hui


Rene Magritte, The Lovers II, 1928. Oil on Canvas, 54 x 73.4 cm. Photograph taken from https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79933.


“I want to say I love you. But my feet remain without a foothold.”

 

One of the collected short stories from Pak Kyongni’s The Age of Doubt, ‘Retreat’ is a poignant vignette into the life of a seamstress, Kang Hyein, as she grapples with the sudden reappearance of her half-sister’s past lover, Kim Byoung-gu. Her sister, Sook-in, now long gone beyond the border to North Korea, leaves Hyein with the troubling baggage she had left behind. What follows is a stirring exploration of two individuals confronted with the gaping void left behind in Sook-in’s wake, each of them seeking solace and connection with the other as they navigate the lingering echoes of her departure.

 

In the flurry of a snowstorm, Hyein’s path crosses with Byoung-gu again after her sister had long left. They had met before, years ago, the former falling quietly in love with the unsuspecting Byoung-gu, all the while silently suppressing her feelings. Years later, the latter is now married, weathered, and intoxicated outside her shop. Upon seeing Hyein, Byoung-gu exclaims Sook-in’s name in surprise, reprising the same fate laid upon Hyein and her mother. Hyein, conceived from an affair between her father and now deceased mother, found herself living with Sook-in, her father, and stepmother - a situation that continues years on, echoing the same complex entanglement and dynamic of two women who had fallen in love with the same man. Unlike her mother, however, Hyein engages in a devout refusal to act upon her feelings, as observed by her friend, who remarks, “You’ll never fully devote yourself to the business of love, Hyein, not with that pride of yours.”

 

Perhaps pride may be her salvation. Byoung-gu, still smarting from the disappearance of Hyein’s sister, searches within Hyein for an untenable, unattainable love that the pair could never truly reciprocate. As the title of the story suggests, Hyein adopts the age-old strategy of retreating, treading upon the similar path a soldier takes when withdrawing in the war for their self-preservation and safety. For her, she protects herself from heartbreak for a second time. Hyein flees to Paris for good, this time asserting an identity separate from her sister, and distinct to herself.

 

Penned in 1958, and like several of the other stories in the collection, ‘Retreat’ carries a sombre and reflective tone, touching upon the aftermath of the Korean War. Rather than focusing on the monumental scale of the historical event, Pak delves into the intimate, inner world of its survivors, exploring the ordinary aspects of life that continue to persist, resilient even in the face of the conflict’s wake. Love, longing, and loneliness continue to endure, testifying to the adaptability of the human spirit and our natural inclinations.

 

What continues to draw me back to ‘Retreat’, even a year after my initial encounter with the story, is Pak’s realistic portrayal of a woman grappling with unrequited love - a timeless dynamic that continues to endure throughout the ages, manifesting itself through various textures and tonalities. The most admirable aspect of the story, however, is not its portrayal of love, but of Hyein’s iron strength, and her rejection of a love that was offered to her, a love that she had once so desired, in order to protect herself. The conscious and devastating realisation that she could never reciprocate what Byoung-gu desired from her, nor achieve what she herself wanted, gave her an opening and freedom from a fate that had broken her mother. As acknowledged by Hyein, “Fate reunited us, but everything has been my will.”

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