Front cover of Mater 2-10

An extract from Mater 2-10 by Hwang Sok-yong, translated by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae

Mater 2-10, originally written in Korean, is shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2024. Read an extract from the opening chapter here

Centred on three generations of a family of rail workers and a laid-off factory worker staging a high-altitude sit-in, Mater 2-10 vividly depicts the lives of ordinary working Koreans, starting from the Japanese colonial era, continuing through Liberation, and right up to the twenty-first century. 

Written by Hwang Sok-yong, Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae

Publication date and time: Published

Yi Jino set up his toilet on the opposite side of the catwalk, as far away from his tent as possible. On his first attempt, he tried holding onto the railing, but his upper body wouldn’t stop tipping forward. He had to press hard with his big toes to not lose his balance: flexed as tight as eagle claws inside his sneakers, those toes were the only thing keeping him from falling on his face or his bum. He didn’t dare miss the target. 

He looked down between his legs to see if his waste was dropping into the small plastic container he’d placed on the catwalk. It had taken him a while to come up with this solution. At first, he’d used plastic bags to store his faeces, but they were useless at containing the smell, and he worried about them leaking. But then a stomach-ache one day had prompted his support team to bring him rice porridge for breakfast. 

After three meals of the stuff, he’d finally started to feel better, and it had occurred to him then that the porridge containers were the perfect size for a makeshift toilet. The stench was awful in the limited space of the catwalk, but once he snapped the lid back on and wrapped the container up tight in a plastic bag, the air was breathable again. As soon as he put in his request for empty containers, his support team procured a dozen and sent them up a few at a time. He used each container once before sending them all down, and his team washed and dried them carefully before sending them back up again. 

This time, after sealing up his waste, Jino stood for a moment with his hands on the railing, gazing down at the unchanging view of the city. 

Portrait of author Hwang Sok-Yong

The sun was just beginning to poke its face over the horizon, and the first flush of dawn had spread through the clouds. Buildings of different heights downtown and the towering apartment complexes reminded him of a jungle. He could see a line of trees along the roadside and more trees in Yeouido Park off to the right. May was the colour of new leaves. The Omokgyo Bridge, where he’d played as a child, was now all concrete, but the stream below still flowed as true as ever into the Hangang River. 

This perch that Jino had clambered up to a month earlier in the dead of night was the top of a chimney at the edge of a public power plant. It stood forty-five metres high, similar to a sixteen-storey apartment building. He was used to most apartment buildings nowadays being twenty, thirty storeys, which was maybe why the chimney hadn’t looked all that tall or made him dizzy to look down from it. But the catwalk encircling it was so narrow and yet so open on all sides that, at first, he’d very nearly walked right over the railing into thin air. The chimney was six metres in diameter, and the catwalk was one metre wide and about twenty paces in circumference. No, only sixteen paces, in fact, since he couldn’t count his sleeping area. 

He’d learned how to survive like this from those who’d gone up tower cranes in other cities. There was Yeongsuk, an older welder and good friend of Jino’s, who’d used the cabin of a tower crane as a bedroom and even grown tomatoes and flowers along the railing during her sit-in. She’d told him that the enormous steel pylons of the shipyard turned into trees every night in her dreams. Maybe those small, fragile living bodies perched atop all that towering steel felt like they’d become one with the metal itself. The cranes turned into broad-leaved trees, and she watched as other, enormous trees soared up out of the sea, here, there, everywhere. But Jino’s chimney did not transform into something beautiful for him as it would have for her. 

Up here, time was like a rubber band, stretching out long and taut, only to snap back the moment he let go, making it impossible to keep track of its passage. He could have estimated the time the way they did in the old days, from the height and direction of the sun and how much light was left, but he had a mobile phone that kept him informed of the exact minutes and seconds. Nevertheless, those distinctions gradually grew meaningless. Because, up here, daily life was an endless repetition in which nothing ever happened. The officially decided-upon divisions of breakfast, lunch, and dinner were the only things tying knots at regular intervals in the length of his day. Breakfast was set at 8.00 am, lunch at 1.00 pm, and dinner at 6.00 pm, and it took less than five minutes for his team to get from the main gate of the power plant to the base of his chimney with a backpack of food. 

Buy the book

We benefit financially from any purchases you make when using the ‘Buy the book’ links.

Up here, time was like a rubber band, stretching out long and taut, only to snap back the moment he let go, making it impossible to keep track of its passage. 

Jino was in his mid-fifties and had been a factory worker for twenty-five years. He’d started out right here in Yeongdeungpo, the district in southwestern Seoul where he had grown up, working at one place for nearly a decade, and then spent the next fifteen years working at another factory in a provincial city down south. He’d gone from being an ordinary factory employee to a supervisor, and had joined a union while still young. Yet once he’d worked his way up to division leader, he’d been fired. Well, they called it ‘being fired’, but what really happened was that the factory was shut down and sold off to another company and, just like that, everyone’s jobs vanished and their livelihoods were wiped out. The laid-off workers had come to Seoul, to the company’s headquarters in the capital, and began fighting to get their jobs back. 

Now, only eleven of the twenty or so workers who had first stood with Jino and refused to back down from their demands to have their positions reinstated or transferred to the new factory were still in the fight. Five who held executive positions in the union or could afford to stay in Seoul made up the core of the chimney sit-in. They were Yi Jino and Kim Changsu, who was the same age as him, Jeong and Bak, who were in their forties, and Cha, the youngest, who was in his twenties. 

Jino’s four colleagues took turns looking after him while holding down whatever jobs their skill sets allowed, whether that was doing odd jobs on construction sites or working as day labourers. 

Portrait of translator Sora Kim-Russell

Teams of five officers from the local police station took turns keeping watch around the power-plant chimney where Jino stood his ground, while the guard shack at the front gate was staffed by either a police sergeant or corporal at all times. Whenever the occasional protest was held outside the power plant by people from the Metal Workers’ Union or activist groups, a police bus filled with riot police would be parked at the base of the chimney on stand-by. On normal days, one member of his support team would pass through the front gate and arrive at the chimney, where the supplies they brought would be inspected for contraband and okayed for delivery. Inspections tended to be stricter in the morning than in the evening, when the mood loosened as the higher-ups got ready to leave work. Even if contraband was found, it was merely confiscated. No one got arrested or beaten, like in the old days, so they could afford to take some risks. What would happen, though, is they’d be made to write a report on the spot, detailing the items and the reasons for bringing them in, and inspections would become more difficult for at least the next ten days. They’d agreed among themselves to try to only bring new items in the evening, and anything likely to get confiscated was sent up on weekend evenings. But in the end, the police were only human, too, and there were younger ones among them as well, military conscripts who sympathised with the cause, which meant that forbidden items had a way of making it up to Jino now and then. 

Before Jino started his sit-in, they did a preliminary survey of what he would need for survival, and spent several days stashing items on the chimney catwalk in the middle of the night. They bypassed the power-plant gate by propping a garden ladder against an exterior wall near the chimney, and used that to sneak in and out. A pair of pulleys and a rope were attached to the catwalk railing, for raising and lowering food and supplies. They also stashed a greenhouse tarp and some thick canvas to protect him from the wind. He bought a small tent and a sleeping bag, along with a headlamp and mountaineering supplies. He also made sure to take his mobile phone and an extra battery. 

With the help of the Metal Workers’ Union, his colleagues set up their headquarters under a canopy in an empty lot outside the power plant, where they took turns cooking and preparing food. They decided to send up three meals a day and figured out everything else as they went along, including how much drinking water he would need and how to dispose of his urine and faeces. Four plastic bottles of water were sent up once a day; this increased to six as the days grew warmer. Two of these bottles were for washing his face and brushing his teeth, and one was for the lettuce and other plants that were just beginning to grow. 

His support team had sent him seeds to help pass the time, and Jino had planted them just a few days after beginning his sit-in. The empty water bottles became urinals; he stashed them to one side as they filled. 

They would make for handy projectiles if the police were to try to bring him down. 

Portrait of translator Youngjae Josephine Bae.