“The Metal Eater of Luminous Smoke” by Minsoo Kang (6149 words)
No Spoilers: Luminous Smoke is the youngest of three brothers who are tasked by their mother to restore their family’s honor and fortunes. For the oldest brother, that means joining the government, and for the middle brother the military. Luminous Smoke’s genius, however, draws him into the mystic arts, and toward the tutelage of a master named No Knowledge. It also leads him, though, into accidental creation, something that comes back to nearly doom his country. Instead, though, the story focuses on wisdom and knowledge, on the duty to act and the duty to nurture. And to avoid arrogance and the toxic idea that a person knows everything. It’s a story that unfolds as a fable, as a sort of moral story, and there’s a sweep of myth and magic to it.
Keywords: Creation, Wisdom, Corruption, Monsters, Mirrors
Review: This story mixes a folklorish tone with much more modern elements, creating an effect that is effective and unsettling. Luminous Snake, after all, is a sort of sage, and there’s the running expectation throughout the story that this is his story, about how he uses his wits and wisdom to set right what is wrong. The story builds that up, that he is a genius mystic who will be called on in a time of need to save the country. Only...well, the story also defies expectations by making the confrontation between him and the monster that’s eating all the metal in the country very complex and layered. On the one hand, it goes rather smoothly. Like stories that proceed as expected, Luminous Smoke is able to approach the beast and work at rendering it inert. He assumes it a stupid beast because of how it appears, and yet that’s anything but the truth. The monster, in fact, is acting out of their own sense of compassion and wisdom, from their willingness to act to try and counter the corruption and pain they see in the world. They were created by Luminous Smoke as an accident, and yet they have changed from that small ball of rice and needles to something bigger, saving many by eating their weapons. It’s a story that becomes about arrogance, and especially of making assumptions based on a flawed perception of the world. Because Luminous Smoke had such an easy time with things, because he was marked genius from a young age and because he “won” against the “monster” so easily, his vision of the world placed himself as sage, as wise. Only by facing the mirrored eyes of the monster is he able to see just how much he doesn’t know, and in that can commit himself to doing good, beginning with helping his brothers to step away from the path they’d been on to take real world actions that will save lives and make the country better. And the monster themself does a great job of linking this story to others, to Frankenstein and beyond, to show Luminous Smoke and the reader that it often takes more than being a prodigy to be right. A fantastic read!
“Woodcutter and Crows” by Shahidul Zahir, translated by Layli Uddin and Mir Rifat Us Saleheen (6670 words)
No Spoilers: Akalu and his wife, Temi, are honest people of simple means who work and love each other and are plagued by crows. Not because these crows are evil, though, but because of the fortune that they find and bring to the couple, because that fortune always turns dark and troublesome because of what it arouses in those around them. The story really is about no good deed going unpunished, and it does it with equal parts humor and bleakness. There is a sort of inevitability to the prose, that whatever money will find its way into Akalu’s hands, it will quickly fly off again, the luck always carrying with it dire consequences.
Keywords: Crows, Money, Jealousy, Corruption, Luck
Review: Okay so I love the way the story wears down Akalu and Temi, at the start so full of hope, at the end completely resigned to what’s happening, to the fact that they are never going to get ahead. Because it speaks so much to living in a system where corruption is the only way to success. For them, who are honest and hardworking and who genuinely love each other and just want a good life, everything is a mine field. There is no real way to navigate it because they lack the skills. Trying so hard to do everything right only leads them into worse and worse situations, into prison and eventually into a full-scale mob that wants their blood. And why? Because they had a bit of luck, which was supposed to be good, but which turned so, so bad. Because in their hearts they lack the bloodthirsty drive that powers so many other people. Because they just want to get by and be happy. And I love the crows, for how they seem like a good omen at first, how they bring riches, but how those riches always bring tragedy. It’s a touch ridiculous and yet it carries with it heap of truth, that people inside these systems there is no way for some people to prosper. They are to be ground to dust, and they actually do better when they stop trying to fight it, when they accept that their bounty is crows eggs and that’s about it, and a string of misfortunes that follow them still. A great read!
This poem speaks to me of time, and cycles, and a bit of nostalgia. The narrator is a among the figures of the carousel, both observer and rider. At least, it seems to me that they are connected across time while they are at this place, while the music is playing and the rest of the world seems to melt away. The animals going around take on life, become animated, a bit of the magic that once filled the narrator thirty years ago returning. At the same time, though, I feel a sort of recognition by the narrator of the rest of the world. That the feeling that filled them when they were smaller, when the world might have seemed less complicated, is not something that can be fully recovered. That even while the music plays and the animals spin, there’s something that grounds them to their adult life, to the world beyond the carousel. For me, at least, that last stanza says that when they were small they wanted to stay, wanted to maintain that sort of innocence or wonder. But that it passed. And that now, returned, they can’t let go of the anxiety or the fear that they’ve had to develop in order to survive in the “real world,” which is full of cycles of its own, circles leading no where but with not of the whimsy or magic of the carousel. And so they find themself asking about the jump, about the when, as if they’ve forgotten how this all works or perhaps because now they’ve been so trained to seek that validation, that someone to tell them what to do. And for me it’s a story that connects past and present through a sense of play, through the fun of being on a carousel, while realizing that the ability to _just_ have fun, to full immerse in the magic of childhood, is beyond reach. A moving and fun poem!
“The Origamist” by Rebeka Sara Szigethy, translated by Adam T. Bogár
This is an interesting poem about folding paper, and maybe the universe along with it. It speaks to me of boundaries, and limits, and doing something unaware of what is impossible. Because I do think I remember hearing that paper can only be folded so many times. And I remember thinking that was a strange thing to have a limit on. And yet it’s a rule. A law almost. One that the character in this poem seems set to break. Which then connects the idea of folding paper with folding space and time. With breaking through the other impossible things. Of going faster than light. At least for me the depiction of the character doing this thing seems to imply much more than just the compactness of paper. It speaks of expansion and singularity, of creation and beginnings. Maybe it’s showing how the moment at the beginning of the universe happens, when everything is bent into one impossible fold and we find ourselves looping back around to the beginning. The poem is prose-ish, blocky, but it has this amazing flow to it, and the dense text I think is fitting for a piece that is about compacting and growing. And that last line that hangs out like the final fold, a flatness that just happens and just yes. It’s a poem filled with wonder and running toward a goal without care or worry that it might break the very laws of the universe. Because there’s some joy in the attempt, and beauty and knowledge and all of that tied into this rush to try and do a thing. It’s a wonderful read!