Were you there for the Korean winter of 2013? The cold was particularly harsh and brittle.
I’d landed in snowy Seoul with a manuscript of Funereal up my sleeve, having finished it back home in the UK. The morning after landing in the city, I braved the cold regardless, wanting to explore the northern Sungshin area that I was staying in. The Lunar New Year had arrived, and Seoul was quieter than expected. At the traffic lights I spotted a large mall on the opposite side of the road, and behind me a smiley young woman in a hooded top. I looked back at the mall, realizing there was a cinema on its top floor, when the girl started to cry, with the smile from her face now gone.
The traffic lights changed, and she began to cross the road ahead of a few other Koreans, all of whom were as too confused as I was to check if the woman was OK, crying as she walked beside me. I may have asked her anyway once we reached the other side of the street, asking how she was in my own language, but she was already marching up past the shops and towards the mall, still teary as she went on into the distance.
Perturbed, I went into the mall for a bit of normality. Far from it – the place was closed for New Year, of course – and strangely dark because of it. A few people were coming in though, taking the lift upwards to what must have been the only open enterprise in the building; the CGV cinema on its uppermost level. I walked up the escalators anyhow, curious to see if anything else was open. None of the steps were moving as I spiralled up into the darkness, shuttered up shops and ghostly mannequins all around me.
From that point on I began to rework Funereal into the novel it is today, and not a day went by when that first brittle impression of Seoul didn’t color my writing, with its coldness and confusion, and that dark lifelessness of a temple of commerce, made a hollowed-out shell without the usual hustle and bustle that defines South Korea. The country’s always on its feet, ever present like the neon lights that stay on even when sleep has taken hold of the land, and there is nothing to warm those who walk along its pavements alone by night.
This was the secret atmosphere I wanted to capture in Funereal. Seoul is a secret to many outside the peninsula after all, and these kinds of stories, city stories, can say a lot about the human condition. From the Tokyo of the Murakamis, to the LA of Ellroy, readers allow themselves to walk into the darkness of these urban shadows.
But in Funereal, there is still a glimpse of light in all the noir. After all, the thing I remember the most from that first morning in Seoul is not the crying, nor the darkness and mannequins of the mall. It’s the smile of that girl which I can’t forget, that brave face she put on for the world out of trying. It reminded everyone around her that it was a new morning. It reminded everyone that a new year had come.
Here’s a small taster from the first chapter of Funereal:
Moon still in the sky, sunlight spread slowly across Seoul through a front of haze and dust.
Dressed in her regular interview suit, piebald and matched to dark heels, Soobin Shin surveyed the mountain-cradled Nowon district from the window of her seventh floor apartment. No one yet stirred in the street, but the roads were already rolling with waves of cars and delivery bikes, and neon signs were alive with words: Singing Room! Sauna! Church! Soobin wondered if any of these establishments had even closed shop the night before. Probably not.
Rooms upon rooms, 24/7, she thought. Welcome to Seoul.
Soobin turned and sprayed perfume into the air, lingering beneath the cloud of aroma for a moment. Content that enough had fallen upon her, Soobin then left for the station, gasping at the cold before blending into the sea of whites, greys, and blues streaming both ways on the road outside. Only a yellow van stood out from the bland wishwash, parked up on the kerb. Kindergarteners were bundled into it, one by one, by a college girl Soobin had seen before, a drowsy-looking young woman in a military cap and parka. Even younger women dragged their feet from the opposite direction, high school girls trailed by middle school boys respectfully keeping their distance. Sleepy herself, Soobin wondered how many of them had gotten any rest the night before. Searching at the traffic lights for a glimpse of sky, all she could see with her weary eyes were windows and air-con units, ugly dust-battered boxes scattered across the faces of apartments in a tic-tac-toe fashion. Electricity lines trailed from rusting and weathered poles. On ground level, the same store names repeated up and down both sides of the road, and stamped on the cargo of numerous delivery bikes, whose hell-bent couriers sped through the red light and buzzed between lanes, their takeaways tilting them perilously askew as they disappeared into the horizon at either end of the road.
As Soobin watched the influx of drowsy commuters streaming onto the escalator down into the underground station, she wondered if she should be trying for an island living, not this city one.
You can read Giacomo Lee’s novel Funereal now in paperback and e-book on Signal 8 Press. http://typhoon-media.com/funereal/
Read more on the novel at www.giacomolee.com.