The Hyper-real magical realism of Cursed Bunny
by Yoojung Chun
My personal favorite sentence comes at the climax of “Snare”, when the man sees his son and notes “Oozing out of the long wound was a familiar glob of gold-colored liquid.”
Chung, Bora. The Cursed Bunny, translated from the Korean by Anton Hur. Algonquin Books, December 2022, 256 pages, $17.99. ISBN 9781643753607
Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny created a minor sensation in the literary world when it was shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize in Anton Hur’s translation. Chung’s first work to be published in English, Cursed Bunny is a collection of ten short stories that fluidly crosses genres. Unlike other Booker-nominated Korean novels like Han Kang’s Vegetarian or Sang-young Park’s Love in the Big City, which were bestsellers in Korea before their English publication, Chung’s collection was published in 2017 and was met with a relatively quiet domestic reception. This is no surprise as the Korean literary marketplace tends to strictly divide so-called “literary fiction” from “genre literature” like science fiction. Chung’s unique blend of folklore, magical realism, horror and sci-fi utilizes genre-specific conventions for incisive social commentary to an unprecedented degree.
In the eponymous short story, “Cursed Bunny”, a shaman creates a cursed artifact in the shape of a bunny-lamp to avenge the death of his friend. The latter, an ethical and upright spirit distillery owner, is driven to suicide by a rival company’s smear campaign. The CEO of the rival company amasses a vast fortune through bribing and exploitation. The cursed bunny lamp, planted within the company, gradually destroys the company as well as the CEO’s personal life. The bunnies copulate and reproduce their cursed offspring, gnawing through the company’s paperwork, ruining their infrastructure, and eventually nibbling through the very bodies of the CEO’s family members. The gruesome story reads like a cautionary tale against the evils of capitalism, but Chung’s choice of the bunny image is far from arbitrary. The invisible, nefarious and endlessly reproducing figure of the cursed bunny seems to represent the invisible hand of the market itself, in its blind drive to increase and lay waste. Indeed, the curse of the bunny-lamp is activated when it is “stroked like a real live pet rabbit” (38), turning on the switch on its back. The invisible hand of capitalism, like a cursed fetish, is activated by human hands but soon runs rampant in its mad chase for profit.
In another story, “Snare”, a man discovers a fox that bleeds gold. In the fashion of fables like Aesop’s “The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs” and Grimm’s “The Fisherman and His Wife”, the hunter’s greed leads to cruelty as he eventually bleeds the fox to death. However, Chung brings a new depth to the age-old story of man’s greed by taking the story further. The fox lives on in the form of the farmer’s twin children; his son bleeds gold when he drinks the blood of his sister. This leads to a horrific assembly line of violence in which the daughter’s blood is extracted for the son, who then bleeds gold to satisfy the greed of his father. At this point, the story expands out from the familiar motif of human avarice to touch on fantastic manifestations of greed in the all-too-recognizable form of patriarchal domestic economy. The allegorical folklore shows us how female labor is channeled into supplying education to male family members, who then are made responsible for becoming the family breadwinners. The story leads to a tragic climax when the man’s wife stumbles upon the bone-chilling scene: “Her violently shaking daughter with her son gnawing and licking at the daughter’s leg. Crouching behind the son, her husband held a small plate up to the son’s body” (64). The image is an unflinching portrait of the exploitative cycle of a patriarchal labor system that robs its members of their basic humanity – a fact further amplified by Chung’s (and translator Anton Hur’s) decision to call each family member “the man”, “his daughter” and “his son” without giving them names. By this point, the reader cannot help but wonder if the title “snare” refers to the one in which the man catches the fox, or the blood-forged snare of a claustrophobic family economy.
A particular point of interest in the collection is how the fantastic or magical elements that Chung incorporates end up being the least horrific parts of her stories. By this I mean that Chung’s deviation from realism always leads right back to the uncanny horror of reality. For example, in the story “Head”, the appearance of a mysterious head in the toilet appears to be the disturbing, horror-inducing presence in the story. Formed out of a woman’s defecations, the head speaks to the woman, calling her “mother” and appearing inside the toilet throughout her life. However, the eeriness of the story stems not from the paranormal presence of the head, but the family’s nonchalance around it. The woman’s husband casually responds, “Eh, that’s nothing. Just leave it alone. It’s not like it crawls out of there at night and lays eggs around the house” (9). Eventually, the woman herself gets used to the presence of the head, telling her young daughter, “That was what we call a ‘head’. If you see it again, just flush” (8). Perhaps the story is interested in showing us the gruesome sacrifices made in the process of upholding a so-called normal life, and how the waste matter of such a life refuses to be flushed down the drainpipes.
Chung’s darkly fantastic fictional worlds always gesture to real-world problems. As a scholar of Slavic literature, Chung has first-hand experience of labor exploitation. (Earlier this year, she filed a lawsuit against Yonsei University, where she taught part-time, for failing to deliver her severance pay.) Married to a labor rights activist, she dedicates much of both her professional and personal life to going to rallies, writing and speaking out on behalf of causes like feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, and better labor conditions. This is probably why Chung’s stories, while borrowing from folkloric and mythical conventions, always lead us back to the real world. “Snare” references post-war economic structure of sacrificing daughters for sons’ education that was at the heart of explosive South Korean economic growth in the 20th century, the so-called “Miracle on the Han River.” “Head” hints at material and emotional sacrifices made behind such a myth of middle-class stability, while “Cursed Bunny” reminds its Korean readers of disasters caused by capitalist greed, such as the collapse of the Sampoong Department store in 1995 and, more recently, the Sewol Ferry disaster in 2014, both leading to hundreds of deaths. Chung is interested in the opportunity cost of modern Korean history, in the unheard voices of those sacrificed for national economic development. Her riveting stories reveal ways in which capitalism and patriarchy collaborate to make this world dystopian.
Similarly, “The Embodiment” features a woman who accidentally gets pregnant when she takes birth control pills for too long. When she is (understandably) shocked by this predicament, an unsympathetic doctor tells her, “You’re the one who overdid it with the pills – it’s your own fault. […] You better find a father for that child, fast. If you don’t, things will really get bad for you” (17). The woman sets out on a quest to find a father for her unborn child and is faced with various picaresque ordeals. Again, the fantastic premise of the woman impregnating herself with a birth control pill is possibly the least frightening aspect of the story; the true bloodcurdling horror lies in the violent, exploitative and discriminating attitude of the people in the woman’s life during her pregnancy. For instance, she meets an old man who wants her as a concubine to provide her with an heir, a man who blackmails her by pretending to be the baby’s father, and the gynecologist who endlessly shames her for taking the birth control pill, falling pregnant, and failing to secure a father. With 0.84 births per woman in 2020, South Korea is hurtling toward a dire aging population problem – and “The Embodiment” does a good job of explaining why. The stigma surrounding pregnancy and female sexuality mingled with half-baked women’s rights mean that procreation and motherhood are more precarious now than ever before. As a modern-day Virgin Mary, our heroine decides that “she had conceived on her own and therefore would raise the baby on her own. But she couldn’t do anything about the persistent worry and fear that tormented her, that she was somehow irreparably harming the child by having this baby without a father” (21). Again, Chung spooks us by throwing us this implicit question: what is stranger, a world where you can fall pregnant by a birth control pill, or a world where you can’t have a “normal child” without a father?
Chung applies this provocative thinking to the Korean housing crisis in “Home Sweet Home”. With housing prices in Seoul ranging from $10,770 to $38,880 per square meter, most young adults in the city have now despaired of ever owning a house in their lifetimes. “Home Sweet Home” uses the gothic motif of a haunted house to explore the underlying anxiety of a wife who struggles to protect her haunted real estate property and deal with nasty neighbors who demand their parking space. Again, if anything, the ghostly presence within the house is the most benign character in the story; at least the dead don’t lure you into bogus business ventures, demand mortgage payments, or threaten your parking space.
In the final, most poignant story in the collection, “Reunion”, a Korean woman strikes up an unlikely romance with a Polish man after they see the ghost of an old WWII veteran together at a plaza in Poland. Both share generational trauma from WWII and the Korean war. The supernatural elements of the story merely bring out the shared violence and heartbreaking loneliness of being human, two qualities that transcend the bounds of nationality for the lovers. The man asks his lover to tie him up in bed. One night, she asks him why.
Slowly, he whispered, “I feel like I’m being given permission to stay alive.”
His reply was somehow so heart-breaking that I tied him up with all my might. (159)
In a sense, this final story calls for a recuperative reading of ghost stories, as human pain surpasses the bounds of time, space, and even of life and death, and people connect against all odds by fundamentally haunting one another. Is that utterly depressing? Sure. Is it also very slightly hopeful, in a brutally realist, Bora-Chung-like way? Yes.
Cursed Bunny would not have landed with such grace and aplomb in its English form if it wasn’t for the great talent and dedication of its English translator, Anton Hur. Having picked up the book at a local book fair, Hur almost single-handedly took on the job of translating and selling the book to English publishing houses. Any bilingual reader cannot help but be impressed by the sheer wicked smoothness with which Hur switches Korean idioms into their perfect English counterparts, such as “the head had the gall to appear before her” (8) or “Such a cut above the usual pandering for a husband!” (22). Hur also does justice to the dry humor of Chung’s original text by modifying specific registers into English equivalents, a particularly trying task as Korean registers rely heavily on the presence and absence of honorifics or implied accents. One such rendition is a phrase like “I ended up with a dickless piece of shit for a son-in-law” (25). To do justice to the folkloric conventions integrated within the collection, Hur also creates new English rhythms that remind Anglophone readers of nursery rhymes and simple, parallel-structured sentences that are reminiscent of fairytales, such as “As her young self toweled off, the old self stripped down” (13) and “The boy’s blood was crimson like any other child’s. And he would cry, like any other child” (63).
In key scenes, Hur delivers with a satisfying crunch when he gives us stunning sentences like “the head swirled in the rushing of the water as it disappeared down the dark hole”(5). My personal favorite sentence comes at the climax of “Snare”, when the man sees his son and notes “Oozing out of the long wound was a familiar glob of gold-colored liquid” (62).
Some of Hur’s decisions also sharpen Chung’s voice in English on a thematic level. For instance, in “Snare”, Hur makes the decision to gender the captured fox as a “she”. In Korean, many sentences do not require pronouns and therefore a whole story can be narrated without specifying genders of characters. Often, it falls to the creative initiative of the translator to make the decision on the pronouns when it is not clarified in the original. By gendering the fox as a “she”, Hur renders the expansion of the folklore into the exploration of a patriarchal domestic economy much more fluid and resonant, and makes the link between the fox and the daughter figure in the story more obvious.
In another, sci-fi inspired story, “Goodbye, My Love”, Hur genders the narrator as a woman and her first A.I. lover – Model 1 – as a “she” as well. As the story is about how the narrator cannot get over her Model 1 despite having newer artificial companions, Derek and Seth, Hur’s pronoun choices bring a queer edge to the story. This makes the twist ending even more properly horror-inducing, as what at first appears to be a robot-human love story ends with a bleak trans-species betrayal. By throwing the readers a red herring, Hur draws them into a false sense of security which Chung’s ending successfully rips apart. Like the synchronized dance of the robots at the end of “Goodbye, My Love”, Hur’s translation of Chung’s text glimmers with newfound meaning.
Chung’s collection is a much-needed yet deeply disturbing fever dream that critiques modern-day capitalism and patriarchy, transcending national borders in the urgency and the acerbity of its message. In each of her stories, we meet an alien presence, whether it be a fox that bleeds gold or a mysterious fetus without a father. However, Chung’s aliens exist to show us the monstrosity that is human society, in the way it wraps itself around these miraculous beings and turns them into monsters through its horrific realism.
All citations refer to the UK edition of Cursed Bunny, published by Honford Star in July 2021.
Yoojung Chun is a PhD Candidate in English Literature at Harvard. She is interested in drama, interactive literature, video games, translation, and transnational and postcolonial literatures. She is also a literary translator of Korean into English. She is currently working on her first novel translation, Heejoo Lee’s Phantom Limb Pain.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, December 6, 2022