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Illuminating BreathCho Hae-jin

『Illuminating Breath』

Author : Cho Hae-jin
Publisher : Moonji
Publication date : March 9, 2021
Number of pages : 316
Format : 120x188mm
ISBN : 9788932038230

Cho Hae-jin

Debuted in 2004 through Munye Joongang. Her publications include short story collections City of Angels and An Escort of Lights and novels A Forest No One Has Seen and Simple Sincerity. She is the recipient of the Sin Dong-yup Prize for Literature, Young Authors Award, Lee Hyo-seok Literature Award, Baek Sin-ae Literature Prize, Hyeongpyeong Literary Award, Daesan Literary Awards and Kim Man-jung Literary Award.

Involvement and Secrets


The Souls at Work[1]

It is significant that in the novels of Cho Hae-jin, the breakthrough in the scenes depicting work and labor take place through human connection, involvement or relationship. Evidently the topic of work and labor is not particular to politico-economics or other branches of the social sciences. In a broader sense, work and labor has always been connected to how we as humans design the world and live our lives. So, to speak of work and labor is always, albeit in a clichéd way, to speak of life itself. It is only that it has been difficult to discuss work and labor without bringing in the issue of capital, as the characteristics of work and labor are directly tied to the capitalist system that defines the world we live in.

The scenes of work and labor depicted in Cho Hae-jin’s novel strike at the core of modern-day life. It reminds us of the innumerous classifications of labor by differences in age, gender, disability, marital status, level of education, class and past career of the workers, and of the deep distress these divisions cause. Her writing reveals the dense, gritty details of modern-day labor and life: the realities of labor and life of elderly unmarried women (Scattering Clouds, The Light at the Tree Top); the conditions of factory work and industrial disasters that have not improved with time (The Night of Sowing, One Breath); and, the division and animosities in labor caused by the system (Between the Borderline). What I want to emphasize here is that her novels, at whatever point, never fail to remind us of the sanctities of existence, of life itself.

Firstly, The Night of Sowing is a short story inspired by a true event that took place in South Korea in the 1980s — the mercury poisoning and deaths of multiple underage factory workers. A huge part of the daunting details of female or underage labor during the age of breakneck growth and economic development in South Korea still remains undisclosed. It does seem a topic difficult to fathom in a genre outside of documentaries or reportage. However, the author again breaks through this by connection, involvement and relation. The protagonist, who has a background in media art, has long been intending to make a documentary about the dying young workers poisoned by mercury from their factory. A man in her neighborhood has become the butt of hatred and wild speculation just because he has a disability. She has a child whom she is concerned might also be disabled. She and her husband have settled down as weary, beaten adults trodding through life, having forsaken the dreams of their youth.

For her, the deaths of the young factory workers are the abyss of a reality that resonates with her own life, being cornered into the underprivileged of society. In the novel, there is a huge chance that the documentary about the young workers might never be filmed. A home for the elderly is being planned on the empty lot where the factory used to stand. The sanatorium being built on the former factory premises stands for the future that will share the memory of one and the same space. It is a symbol of the stories that will go on. Therefore, the ending of the novel does not hint at failure or lethargy; for the faith that strives to connect the past, the present and the future is stronger than self-indulging pity or any gesture of consolation.

Who and what divides them?

I do also realize that building a narrative with work or labor as a topic could be perplexing without a perceptive gaze that can penetrate the world of today. We are ever more thrust upon with multiple, simultaneous identities — as laborers, customers and (self-employed) capitalists. Even though we are presented with various versions of imaginings of the end of labor through advances in technology, there are workplaces that cannot simply be solved away by technology or outsourced. It is almost a sign of citizenship to be able to work. And there still remain plenty of rights that can be gained only through resistance and struggle. However, at the same time, liberation from labor is an ancient problem that cannot be reduced to a matter of citizenship. Labor is still a crucial topic that forces us to re-imagine the world from a different perspective: from human labor in the traditional sense, to the labor and exploitation of non-human or animal labor (to benefit humans).

When taking such recent developments into consideration, I think One Breath and Between the Borderline, in particular, open up a new horizon in the narrative of work and labor. I stop for a moment to ask some questions. Does every high school graduate go to college? Who is doing all the work deemed difficult and dangerous? Why are the irresponsible arguments around industrial disasters so often forgotten? What do immigrants, youths, housewives, the elderly, the disabled and the underprivileged have in common? What part do labors undertaken by temporary workers or contract workers play in our lives? One Breath never deals directly with these issues. However, it is impossible not to contemplate them when we read the novel.

Furthermore, the questions it poses are these: How can people with jobs that depend on the renewal of a yearly contract take care of each other? Even a temporary rapport can form an emotional and affective attachment. Can such a relationship be cut short by the ending of a contract? Who or what is it that makes us censor ourselves for credentials (conditions of contract or being a full-time employee) even when it is time to stand together and help each other? Can we still connect regardless of all the conditions that bind us?


Kim Mi-jeong
Literary critic


[1] This title was borrowed from Franco Berardi’s The Soul at Work.

Translated by