“When Adam Opens His Eyes” (1990, t. 2013) by Jang Jung-il
<아담이 눈뜰 때> (1990) 글 장정일
Holden Caulfield romps around Seoul in the late 1980s.
a book review by Gregory C. Eaves
Pause. Press pause on your life. Press pause on the city around you. Everyone stops. You, however, continue to move. You continue to move and to play. The whole world is frozen: cars brake in the lane, butterflies freeze in mid-flight, dogs stop in mid-jump, people halt in mid-stride, all paused. You, however, continue to walk around and to live for a year. One whole year. Then un-press pause. Snap! Life continues. Humans flow with you, around you. You return to the flow and life moves on.
In “When Adam Opens His Eyes” (1990) by Jang Jung-il (b. 1962), a kid half way between his teens and his 20s learns how to be an adult, overemphasizing all the wrong things at the wrong time, and generally making the same mistakes we all make in our twenties. He’s surround by late-1980s pop songs, tons of books and Edvard Munch’s painting “Puberty”. Like the Biblical Adam heading out of Eden and into the world; like a baby opening its eyes for the first time; like the model in “Puberty” changing from child to adult; our protagonist pauses for a year, grows up, and then continues with his life. The author wrote it when he was 28-years-old.
Shocking and modern when first published in Korean in 1990, today “When Adam Opens His Eyes” barely raises an eyebrow. Nonetheless, it’s still a grand <i>Bildungsroman</i> of late-1980s Korea. All the key events are there: sex, alcohol, men & women, women & men, literature, art, books, more sex, reading, late nights, long walks, deep thoughts and politics, the shift from dictatorship to democracy. And, of course, the Olympic flags.
Our hero begins his tale with his university entrance exam. His score was good enough for a provincial university, and for a few scholarships, but he shrugs that all off. He wanted acceptance into a larger university in the capital. So he sees this as a failure. He decides to study for another year. “Why not?” he seems to say. There’s a mom somewhere supporting him, and a brother somewhere being studious at graduate school abroad. Our hero, dubbed “Adam” by one of his girlfriends, sighs, shrugs and just hangs out in Seoul for a year.
This indifference — almost an uncaring angst, if that combination is possible — comes out on page six: “From that moment of failure, I was estranged from the world.” He had failed, in his view, in his entrance exam into university and was going to take a year off to study more; loaf about Seoul for a year and see what happens. Look at Munch paintings. Listen to the Rolling Stones. Read philosophy. He gets a couple of girlfriends during the year. At the end of the book he re-takes the university entrance exam. Life continues.
At one point, Adam and one of his girlfriends, Eun-sun, write a poem.
We can trust nobody.
I only trust those who have died young.
I only trust those who have gone crazy on drugs.
I only trust those with names beginning with ‘J.’
Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison.
Only those frightul singers.
Or taking drugs,
In this world,
Both are possible.
Even doing both at the same time
Wouldn’t cause any gossip.
That alone is the truth.
Like a play within a play, the author’s own poem sums up his own novel.
Adam’s one year romp around Seoul is timeless in what the character learns and experiences. Nonetheless, written in 1990, the tale is intimately placed among late-1980s South Korea. What happened in late-1980s Korea? Sports and politics.
Seoul hosted the 10th Asian Games in September and October 1986, its first major sporting event. Seoul then also hosted the 24th Summer Olympic Games in September and October 1988. During these years, Korea’s yearly GDP was growing rapidly with planes, trains and automobiles everywhere. Mammon stood tall. All the nationalists, middle-aged men, racists and flag-wavers saw these events as some sort of Grand Awakening, with honor, face and respect for Our Race. A scarred society was seeking outside approval, and wanted the world to “understand” South Korea’s successes, a dog whistle word for not looking too carefully into the Three Cs: collaboration, corruption and cut corners. Newspapers, editorial pages and media were all prideful, thumping their chests like some silverback gorilla and waving high the national flag.
Beyond sports, however, politics, too, played a key role in late-1980s South Korea. Author Jang turned 25-years-old in 1987, a key political year for modern South Korean society.
The elections of December 1987 were the start of the Sixth Republic and the first presidential elections after the introduction of direct free and fair elections. The light of democracy had flared, but youth remain sullen. Our hero notices the social changes going on around him.
“Our entire generation, which, with the sensitivity of puberty, had witnessed the overthrow of truth through dirty political profiteering, would one day produce vast numbers of people uninterested in politics.”
A former ROK Army general won that election, but with only 36.6 percent of the vote. Today, in 2016, perhaps not ironically, his eldest son has just been recently named in the Panama Papers leak.
So nationalism was snapping in the breeze as the people seized power from the generals. In contrast to this <i>Zeitgeist</i>, our hero, Adam, is kind of ambivalent to the whole thing. He shrugs, not caring much about nationalists or the flag waving, and generally shrugging off politics. The immediate in his life — the Rolling Stones, Edvard Munch, his lovers, art, music, books — is more important. He is not one with society. He is his own free man.
Page five tells us: “So whoever discovers how to empty himself of all desire will become a free person, one who controls himself so perfectly that he becomes his own master.” He’s almost Buddhist in his outlook.
Jang Jung-il wrote “When Adam Opens His Eyes” in 1990 at the age of 28. His formal education had ended at the end of middle school, but he could still write well. The novel was made into a movie in 1993, directed by Kim Ho-Seon, and the movie still scores a 7.33 out of 10 at Naver Movies.
Interestingly enough, a few years later, author Jang was arrested in 1996 when another novel of his, “Just Try Fuckin’ Lying To Me” (내게 거짓말을 해봐) (1996), was deemed by a judge to be too “pornographic” for the times.
At any rate, as you read “When Adam Opens His Eyes,” make sure you have your music handy. “Please Don’t Go” by KC and the Sunshine Band. “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones. “Jezebel” by Sade. “Light My Fire” by Jim Morrison. The book is peppered with Boy George, Michael Jackson, Wham!, F.R. David and the Eurythmics. The author calls Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin the Three Holy Js.
It would have been interesting if author Jang Jung-il had written a follow-up book about Adam so that we could see how he’d become a “real adult” when he hit his 30s. However, middle-aged life just isn’t as interesting, is it?
“When Adam Opens His Eyes” was translated into English in 2013 by Hwang Sun-Ae and Horace J. Hodges. It was published in English as part of Dalkey Archive Press’ Library of Korean Literature and is available at Amazon.
So press pause on your life. Pick up “When Adam Opens His Eyes” for a quick read about coming-of-age in a timeless world. It’s a great journey. Then un-press pause. Carry on with your life.