Last November I got back into go through the Dragon Go Server, where the games last for weeks or even months, and even the fastest players (like me) play only a few moves per game on any given day. The players are much less squirrelly than those on the Internet Go Server, where I played in '97 and '01, and the slower pace encourages thinking about each move instead of playing by reflex. Consequently, my game has improved dramatically. In go, a beginner starts off with a rank of 30 kyu, and that number gets smaller as the player improves. The best player with whom I am personally acquainted is a 5 kyu. After that comes 4 kyu, 3 kyu, 2 kyu, 1 kyu, and then 1 dan, the first master rank. From there, the numbers proceed upward: 2 dan, 3 dan, and so forth. On IGS, my rank hovered in the low 20s; once I made it as high as 18 kyu, but that didn't last long. On Dragon, I was at 19 kyu in mid-November, 14 kyu in December, 12 kyu in February, and 10 kyu in March (where I am currently stuck). I have about half a dozen games going at any given time, and while I'm no longer playing all day the way I did at the end of '04, I'm still into it deeply enough that I couldn't resist checking out First Kyu by Sung-Hwa Hong.

First Kyu is a very slim novel about a Korean go player named Wook. The title is a bit confusing, as Korea doesn't actually use the kyu/dan system. In Korea, a beginner starts at 18 gup, and proceeds up to 1 gup. To proceed past 1 gup, you have two choices. If you're rich and have the right connections, you can get a meaningless piece of paper certifying you as an amateur dan. Or, if you want to become a professional go player, you can play the semiannual qualifying tournament; the top two finishers become pros, meaning that in the entirety of Korea at most four people make pro per year. The 1 gup level therefore encompasses everyone from local club players who've just made it past 2 gup all the way up to the person who just finished third in the qualifying tournament — who may in fact be the third-strongest player in Korea. (There is a saying that a pro 1 dan is stronger than a pro 9 dan, because the competition is so intense that those currently trying to qualify have the sharpest skills in the world.) China and Japan also have professional go players, and while they're called dans just like their amateur counterparts, the rankings do not compare and, online at least, different abbreviations are used. A 1 kyu is 1k; an amateur 1 dan is 1d; a professional 1 dan is 1p. And a 1p is expected to be able to crush a 6d. If I continue to pursue go as a hobby, I may someday make 1k, or even 1d. To be a 1p or even a 1 gup I would have had to drop out of school and do nothing but study go from the time I was ten.

But that's because I was born after attending go school became a requirement to be certified as a professional. At the time First Kyu is set, the late 60s, this isn't the case — anyone with the money to enter the tournament gets a chance to go pro. But entrants still need to win, and most of the novel focuses on Wook's efforts to pass the test. There is also a demanding credentialing process one must successfully undergo in order to become a dentist, which was Sung-Hwa Hong's occupation until his death in 2001. But one needs no credentials to become an author. One need only find a publisher. And as an author, Hong... well, I'm sure he was a fine dentist.

The red flag went up right from the get-go, as the Author's Note declared, "[...] though it seemed a formidable task for a non-native speaker to translate a book into English, I did not want anyone but me to attempt the translation [...]" This is always death. A shaky command of the source language means that the final product may not be entirely faithful to the original, may even miss the point from time to time; a shaky command of the target language means that the final product will provoke winces. Don't believe me? Here's some dialogue:

"You bozos! Why are you parked here? I have secured these chicks just for you!"

Let's enjoy some more, this time with some narration. I haven't indented the paragraphs, because the paragraphs aren't indented in the book.

As they played, Inae's mother walked in with her husband's tea on a tray. She commented with a smile on her face, "I think Inae really likes him, dear. It is the first time she has brought a boyfriend home, isn't it?"
"Well, is that so? Totally taken with him, are you Inae?"
What a conversation between father and daughter! Wook could not believe what he was witnessing. They joked with each other about her newly acquired boyfriend. It was an enviable environment.

But that said, it's not like a new translation would have turned this into great literature. There are more problems than just the stilted language. First Kyu repeatedly violates the show-don't-tell principle. ("Ice cream was ordered. Over the ice cream cups, the conversation became noisier and more interesting. Ikoo kept his leadership role faithfully, the teens now looked as if they had known each other for months. Ikoo's resources were limitless.") Characterization is minimal. The game descriptions are perfunctory at best. Writing up a go game in prose seems like it'd be extremely difficult to do well, so there's no dishonor in failing... but that doesn't mean you should publish the results.

At least I learned a little bit about Korea and specifically the Korean go scene in the late 60s, which was interesting. Not nearly as interesting as I was hoping for, since the writeups I'd seen indicated that this book was a great portrait of Asian go culture. It's not; it's mediocre at best. But it was still a different take on go from my own. To me, go is a computer application. It's a web site I pull up from time to time. It isn't a scene. The same goes for music. My relationship with music is basically Protestant: it's just me and the CDs, or lately, the MP3s. I don't go to concerts, I've never been into the local scene (wherever I've happened to have lived)... it's not a social activity for me. (I'm reminded of Pete Townshend talking about the power of volume — the Who, he said, played so loud because when you came to one of his shows, you were supposed to listen to the band — not get drunk, not chat with your friends, not pick up girls, but listen to the band, and so he had the band play so loudly as to render the audience physically incapable of doing anything but listen.) So just as First Kyu was a different take on go, the movie 9 Songs was a different take on music. It's a portrait of a couple who alternate between going to concerts and having sex. (I was about to make a joke about the latter at least being something in my life that isn't computer-mediated, but then I remembered how I met my girlfriend.) This movie was bad. The concerts, featuring bands such as Franz Ferdinand that I hear are currently popular but which haven't made it to Pioneer Valley radio, are pretty boring; the songs are enh (though I did like the Von Bondies' contribution) and the lighting messed with my head. (Strobes bother me.) The sex scenes don't communicate anything beyond "here are some people fucking." Really, it'd be a stretch to call 9 Songs a narrative at all. I think it was Gérard Genette who said that "the queen died and then the king died" isn't a story, but "the queen died and then the king died of grief" is. 9 Songs is firmly in the former camp. These two people went to some concerts and then they had some sex and then the girl went away. There's no cause and effect. They just do stuff. Oh yeah, and then the guy goes to Antarctica. Really. Yeah, I dunno.

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