There is no greater ghost than the scars of our trauma. While we rationally dismiss the existence of the supernatural, it is the actual ignorance of our long repressed trauma and fractured memories that births complex entities blurring reality and fantasy. The rare acknowledgement of the trauma and therefore its humanisation in sentient forms is depicted in Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny – an absurd world where your own poop can take revenge on your life. Switching between first-person and third-person narratives, the characters of the stories don’t wait for their buildup, they simply show up with a “Hi” or a revenge trick up their sleeves in the opening lines.
Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2022, Cursed Bunny – translated with urgency and intimacy from the Korean by Anton Hur – doesn’t strive to be genre-labelled. The ten short stories race across a spectrum of lived experiences, modern folk stories, and anonymous anecdotes. The writing – and the translation – is so lucid and vivid that each story puts the point across strongly: getting even is the only way out in an uneven world, whether it is an orphan, fox, or even a woman.
The opening lines of the first story, titled “The Head”, questions the nature of creation and repressed motherhood. We see a woman encounter a talking entity made out of her own faecal waste in the toilet. The entity repeatedly calls her “Mother”. While most of us would have fled the house for our dear lives, the protagonist’s nonchalance about the encounter makes you question the absurdity of this universe we are slowly being pushed into. She flushes the toilet as she dismisses it every day until things get to a point of violence.
The theme of female autonomy is also illustrated in “The Embodiment” where a young woman is ostracised by medical practitioners upon discovering that she has been impregnated by her own birth control treatment. Instead of being treated, she is moral-policed by the medical staff into marrying a suitable man to avoid societal embarrassment. In a society where women’s sexual and reproductive rights are censored and a single, unmarried mother is subject to scrutiny and ridicule, the story proceeds as she forcefully goes on the journey of “Find the Child a Father”, arranged by her family.
While female disempowerment subtly runs through the veins of each stories, Chung’s writing also deals with patriarchy, capitalism, artificial intelligence and the insatiable quest for power, so visible amongst men. The eponymous story, “Cursed Bunny”, talks of cursed fetishes and intergenerational revenge tales that engulf both the victim and the perpetrator. An artisan family creates aesthetic-looking fetishes (akin to voodoo dolls and black magic), which are then used to put a curse on a fierce competitor who destroys their family business of alcoholic spirits. Unbeknownst to the competitor, he receives a bunny-shaped lamp as a gift, which ultimately leads to the complete ruin of his business and the tragic death of his family.
The curse of a curse
As the collection progresses, there is a realisation that these stories don’t take the moral high ground. Chung takes an unbiased stand on highlighting the collateral damage experienced by both families involved in the curse. As the Japanese saying in the story goes, “Cursing others leads to two graves. Anyone who curses another person is sure to end up in a grave themselves.” The stories take a darker turn in the fable-like narrative “Snare”, where a man discovers a fox that bleeds gold. Instead of helping it recover, he exploits it until the fox bleeds dry and then he discovers that his son can also bleed gold, but on one condition: he needs to be fed human blood.
Another intergenerational curse story surfaces as we witness a man mercilessly mistreat his children similar to the fox to gain riches and his ultimate downfall from the greed. “Goodbye My Love” flips the table on the humans as a set of robots plots revenge. In this intriguing queer, trans-species love story gone wrong, the robots attack the protagonist as she decides to replace her old robot with a newer technology. With a growing need to improve capitalistic efficiencies and human loneliness through technology, the story blends the present and inevitable reality of the future to show the dangers of the sentience of artificial intelligence and its capacity to replace human labour. It is cynical that all the characters in the book adhere to an archetype without any definitive names, except the robots with their human names, Derek and Seth.
We are beautiful, vile, and absurd in our primal and private moments. In such moments, there is no discrimination between a murderer and a saint. We extract pleasure from our own repulsions and blame the world as long as it serves our needs. “Scars” shows an orphan held hostage in a dark cave with no recollection of his past attempts to trace the roots of his kidnapping by a monster as he struggles with contempt by both the society and the monster. The longest story in the entire collection, it is also the most horrifying with its extremely sharp and gory description of the manner in which the bird feeds on the young man while he lies helpless. As he escapes the cave one day, he chances upon a village who might hold answers to his mysterious kidnapping ages ago. But the truth may devastate him forever. It beautifully depicts how society propagates othering in this case the innocent orphan turning into the monster through their abuse.
“Home Sweet Home” tells the story of a woman who sells her house and purchases a building complex to rent out houses in order to earn more. However, she soon discovers that anyone who wishes her harm begins to experience strange and eerie accidents. The woman suspects that these incidents are somehow connected to the child she spends time with in the building’s basement. The fantastical elements are so heavily used that sometimes the stories depicted as folktales reveal the ultimate truth placed above any moral or philosophical lesson: Human is evil.
Whether it is the man, the woman or even the youth, the stories evoke a powerful sense of the dehumanising effects of oppressive systems, leaving the reader with a deep sense of empathy for those trapped within them. In “Ruler of the Winds and Sands”, a princess about to marry a prince is cursed with blindness by a mysterious ruler and thus embarks on a quest to find a cure for him. However, as the story progresses, she realises the deceptive nature of the prince. One of the lesser intimidating stories, the subversion of the traditional tropes of royal love stories makes it more of an anti-fairy tale.
The final bittersweet tale, “Reunion”, tells the horrors of the war and the vicious cycle of trauma parents create for their children that the only escape seems is death. Such is the rootedness of their trauma that a student and a mysterious old man bond over lived experiences and rope play to make sure that they are alive. In the times of the war where survival was more important than family and emotions, the children are the bearers of the pain and horror experienced by their ancestors.
At the intersection of capitalism, gynae-horror, and fantasy lies the beautifully dark and lyrical prose of Cursed Bunny. These stories are not meant to please the readers but to disturb them with the reality that some ghosts are indeed man-made that will haunt us forever. With no closure or solutions whatsoever, Bora Chung confronts readers with uncomfortable truths that lie amongst and within us.
Cursed Bunny, Bora Chung, translated from the Korean by Anton Hur, Hachette India.