Hwang Sok-Yong is the author of Familiar Things, which tells the story of Bugeye, a child forced, along with his mother, to live on the outskirts of a society poised for economic and social change. They make a living picking useful objects out of the vast landfill that is also their island home. The book deals with themes of ostracism, and the destruction and waste engendered by capitalism.
Ever Dundas’s Goblin follows its eponymous protagonist through wartime Britain, blitzed cities and countryside houses full of dispossessed children, of whom Goblin is one. Goblin’s narrative is the story of a shattered childhood and the use, and strength, found in discarded objects—and people.
Insightful questions from chair Stuart Kelly brought to dazzling light the uncannily similar themes addressed by the two books, like the resiliency of childhood and the magic of the everyday. One of the most beautiful concepts articulated during this talk was that of the Korean dokkaebi, or goblin. Loosely explained, a dokkaebi is a creature borne from the spirit or memory of a well-used object. These are the objects that Bugeye—and Goblin—build their lives from.
Unfortunately, however, the most memorable aspect of the evening may not be books or authors themselves but a difficulty of communication that made the evening twice as dramatic as it should have been.
As might be expected, Hwang, who has spent most of his life living and working in various East Asian countries, is not fluent in English. As such, an interpreter, an Edinburgh University student who seems only to have been contacted a short time before the event, was present onstage to translate for Hwang and to transmit questions to him.
Unfortunately it seems that the interpreter was rather inexperienced. Each point Hwang made was prefaced by a quiet back-and-forth discussion which took upwards of a minute and often left the interpreter flustered and struggling to articulate Hwang’s comments. Hwang himself was visibly frustrated with this arrangement, and went so far as to stand up more than once with a resigned, ‘I give up’.
This also meant that responsibility for carrying the discussion fell, to an extent, to Dundas, who has admitted to being rather reserved in the public eye, and Kelly, whose expertise lies in articulating complex ideas that are, as it turns out, not easily translated. Nonetheless it was clear what sheer force of will was being exerted by everyone onstage to keep the conversation going.
At a later date I found out that the interpreter hired for the event had been recommended by the Korean consulate in Edinburgh, which shifts blame away from the Festival somewhat, but I’m still struggling to understand how this could have been allowed to happen.
With this in mind, I want to make clear deciding on a rating for this event was tricky. I was tempted to give it three stars, but as the reasons for this were entirely out of the control of the speakers, I didn’t think it fair. On the other hand, had things gone differently I’m confident this event could have earned five stars but wasn’t given the chance.
If you would like to show your support, Goblin is up for the Edinburgh International BookFestival’s First Book Award, voting closes 13 October.
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival and it’s programme click here