Buja’s Diary (2005)

Take a virtual tour of Korea through the pages of Buja’s Diary, the first translated non-genre "manhwa", or Korean manga, to arrive in the English-speaking world. From the pen of Seyeong O, one of Korea’s leading cartoonists, comes this collection of thirteen stories that brings readers to different places in times in Korea. O’s incisive viewpoint and intelligent style helps to create an especially memorable book.
 
Seyeong O is a terrific short story writer, with a great eye for important details, and for the intelligent use of symbolism as the way to drive stories. Take the title story, for instance. "Buja" is a Korean word meaning "rich", but the Buja of "Buja’s Picture Diary", is a poor girl from a poor family who doesn’t fit in well at school. Where all her classmates can buy nice clothes for the school celebration, Buja’s mother just scrapes by, at the edges of the society. O draws a complex and interesting view of this family’s life, with fully rendered pages of wordless text placed next to a child’s diary. Readers get a great feel for what life is like for these characters, and presents a thoughtful look at his home country. Or see "The Secret of the Old Leather Pouch," where the leather pouch of the story symbolizes several different things: generational conflict, the split of North and South Korea, the conflict between an individual father and son.
 
This book is filled with gems like that. "Horse" is a short story about small town life after the end of the Japanese occupation: "Why is the horse in that shape? It looks shabby and has no spirit, just like me. So that’s it. The horse must be me. We’re both freed from the Japs, but with neither happiness nor hope…" "Shoot! Shoot! Shoot! Shoot! Bang" tells the story of a young man who just can’t get over his experiences at war. "The Little Alley Watcher" tells the story of the last family on a lonely and deserted island.
 
Not all the stories are dark, though. "Observe" tells the story of a very vain man who loves to smack his chewing gum, and how his vanity only goes so far. "Escape" tells the story of a bored office worker who escapes his job through an apocalyptic fantasy. "The Snake Catcher Brothers’ Dream" tells a universal story about greed.
 
Seyeong O’s art is wonderful. His style is rich and evocative, and changes to suit each story. He’s a wonderful observer of people and human nature – his people are subtle and unique and full of life.
 
My only complaint about the book is that there are a few elements of it that are a bit obscure to readers not versed in Korean society. But those are few and far between. Overall, "Buja’s Diary" is a fascinating travelogue to an interesting country that, in the end, isn’t very different from the USA.
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