Reviews / December 2015 (Issue 30)


Subverting the Claims of Appearance: Park Min-gyu and Shin Kyung-sook

by Flora Mak

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Park Min-gyu (author), Amber Hyun Jung Kim (translator), Pavane for a Dead Princess, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014. 262 pgs.

Shin Kyung-sook (author), Sora Kim-Russell (translator), I'll Be Right There, Other Press, 2014. 324 pgs.

 

The two novels in this review, Park Min-gyu's Pavane for a Dead Princess and Shin Kyung Sook'sI'll Be Right There, explore the various forces that have shaped lives in South Korea in recent decades. While Pavane for a Dead Princess engages with the cultural and social effects of Korea's rapid economic growth, I'll Be Right There draws on political tensions between the student protest movement of the 1980s and the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship.

Named after the 1899 Ravel piece for solo piano, Pavane for a Dead Princess is at once an unflinching critique of capitalism and its corollary, the fetishisation of beauty in contemporary South Korea, and a deftly-woven, elegiac tale about lost youth and the consolatory power of literary art.

Pavane tells the love story of a first person narrator with matinee-idol good looks and a decidedly ugly woman. It opens with the now middle-aged narrator reminiscing about a long-ago meeting with the woman, his first love and the beloved "princess" of his youth. (Throughout the novel, she remains anonymous and is generally only referred to by the pronouns "she" and "her.") The encounter, which takes place around Christmas in an impoverished town in South Korea, is a reunion for the couple after a year's separation. Concealed by the snow and the walls of the café Santorini, the lovers rekindle their relationship and discover that their bond has only grown stronger. Despite their sweet talk, however, they can sense a foreboding future, even if they do not yet know how to articulate it. The episode ends with narrator's regretful remark that he hasn't seen "her" since.

From that point, the novel regresses further back in time. On seeing "her" for the first time, the narrator is taken aback—"[j]ust as the world's most beautiful woman, the world's ugliest woman is no less powerful in completely disarming a man"—and almost immediately cannot take his eyes off her. Here, Park disarms with his starkly ironic love-at-first-sight parody; however, throughout the novel, he reveals the damaging effects of Korean society's focus on beauty. At numerous points, "her" ugliness is indirectly depicted through the involuntary gasps and derisive remarks of other characters. There are also detailed depictions of her self-consciousness, timidity and humility, which result from her having internalised the culture's tyrannical standards of beauty. In a letter to the narrator, she reflects on all the stares of disgust she receives while wearing a skirt: "You know what's the most pitiful thing in the world? The obvious effort made by an ugly woman to look beautiful." The tone is ever self-defeating.

Through the narrator's atypical infatuation, Park dissects an oppressive social environment that prioritises physical appearance over character and competence: "It wasn't that I didn't like pretty girls; I was uncomfortable at how generous the world was to them. It wasn't different from the generosity the world afforded to rich people. Who gets to extend this generosity, and who gets to suffer from it?" The narrator understands the social inequality of beauty well, having witnessed how his plain but hardworking mother was dumped by his handsome dad, and the cruelty of this separation contributes to his sympathy for and his attraction to "her." Despite inheriting his traitorous father's good looks, however, the narrator is determined to avoid the traps of physical appearance and pursue the real.

The novel offers other critiques of Korea as well. Many of these are expressed by Yohan, the illegitimate son of a department store owner who befriends the narrator and plays matchmaker for the couple. He offers a harsh assessment of Korean society's "state of non-evolution" and cynically states that the fridge "was more a mom to me than she ever was." Working a supervisory job in the underground car park of the department store, Yohan regards the thriving business as a means of pampering one's empty soul through material gratification:

After the summer clearance sale, we have the autumn new stock sale, followed by the Thanksgiving sale, followed by the final autumn bash sale, the first snow winter sale, the Christmas sale, the end-of-the-year sale, the New Year's bargain sale, and so on and so forth. That's the department store formula.

Feeling excluded from mainstream Korean culture, the narrator and his two friends shelter themselves from a distressing society through their genuine bond. Time and again, allusion is made to Antoine de Saint Exupéry's moving tale of love and friendship, The Little Prince. The narrator invites "her" to tame him, and when they date, he gradually helps her address the inferiority complex that has pinned her to the fate of loneliness. Within the novel, The Little Prince also stands for the ideal of living with the real. The misanthropic Yohan is drawn to the narrator because of his unconscious grasp of something "real" outside of conventional society and for not adhering to social expectations. This is evident in the way the narrator at first refuses to name the cat that sneaks into his house, preferring instead to refer to it simply as "cat." Yet when the narrator eventually starts to call his pet "Saint-Exupery," Yohan is left with a sense of betrayal at his friend's move towards conformity. The event foretells Yohan's sudden dissociation from the couple and the narrator's inevitable integration into a corrupt adult world he used to seek to avoid.

Abundant references to classical music and Western pop songs also speak to the friends' ideals and doubts about the nature of the world. However, like the fake Kentucky Fried Chicken they frequent, foreign pop culture is shown to be little more than romanticised images. The narrator is disappointed to realise that the youthful haven he imagines depicted in John Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" in reality denotes the name of an orphanage. Struggling through first love and friendship, he comes to understand that life is constantly haunted by a sense of strangeness, randomness and emptiness. 

The novel's first person narration ends with the somewhat improbable "Happy Ending," in which the narrator unites with "her" in Germany, a country where competence is justly valued over appearance. While the chapter acts like the fictive closure of the narrative, it is not the end of the novel. What follows is metafictional twist, narrated from the perspective of Yohan and "her," and which provides real closure by revealing the true cause of the termination of the couple's romance after the Santorini date. This narrative design testifies to the therapeutic value of the literary imagination and turns the closed narration into a memorial that actualises what could have been.

***

Apart from rapid economic growth, South Korea in the 1980s was also characterised by tumultuous political unrest aimed at Chun Doo-hwan's regime. Based on historical records of mysterious disappearances of student protestors, early deaths and self-immolations, Shin Kyung-sook's I'll Be Right There imagines how the decade's political violence cuts deep wounds in the impressionable minds of four young friends and leaves them confused about the value of human attachment.

The novel, Shin's second in English translation, revolves around four childhood friends, Jung Yoon, the first person narrator, Dahn, Myungsuh and Miru. Their tenacious, prickly bond encapsulates the heartbreaks of the epoch, a time in which searching for missing persons, bearing ill news and craving for solace were all to common.

At the beginning of the novel, Jung Yoon suddenly finds herself brought back to a confusing and hopeless past when her ex-boyfriend, Myungsuh, calls after eight years to deliver news of the impending death of a beloved former literature professor. During their time at university, Professor Yoon provided Jung Yoon and her friends with a moral lighthouse amidst both the personal and social uncertainties of young adulthood, encouraging them from his earliest lectures to reflect on the purpose of their life.

At one point, after observing how riot police chased a group of student protestors outside his classroom, he asks his pupils, "What is the use of art in this day and age?" He then goes on to relate the tale of Saint Christopher, who risked his life by carrying the disguised Jesus across a torrential river:

We cross by becoming Saint Christopher to one another. By carrying the child across together. There is no difference between the person who crosses and the person who helps another across. You are not just Saint Christopher, carrying your pole into the rising waters. You are the world and its creators, each one of you. Sometimes you are the Christopher and other times you are the child—you carry each other across the river. So you must treasure yourselves and hold one another dear.

The parable preaches the notion of the individual's responsibility towards the community. It also neatly summarises the novel's conviction about the great "weight and volume and texture" of intertwined human lives—people need company. But "company" in I'll Be Right There means more than companionship, it also refers to the necessity of shouldering the "darkness within" each person, even to the extent of painful transference. Professor Yoon, having overcome traumatic experiences in his youth, invests his moral agency in teaching and in literary art and in imparting this profound life lesson to his students. But despite having been warned about life's choking currents of guilt and despair, Jung Yoon and Myungsuh only come to understand how they can bear the sufferings of old age after many heart-to-heart encounters and irrecoverable losses.

To grow up, the novel suggests that the young friends must first come to terms with the collapse of their Edenic childhood, as dramatised in the death of beloved maternal models. At the age of twenty, Jung Yoon is sent away, against her will, by a terminally-ill mother wishing to shield her daughter from her death. The young woman reacts by covering the windows of her room with black paper and skipping college for a year. Miru likewise enters a period of emotional distress as a result of a family member's death. After witnessing her sister's self-immolation, she begins wearing the deceased's dress and starts a vain search for her sister's socialist boyfriend, who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Miru refuses to abandon the effort until Myungsuh and Jung Yoon—now acting as metaphorical substitutes for her sister—agree to move back into her old house. However, no matter how hard she tries to reproduce her lost childhood, Miru is defeated by a primordial sense of guilt; her eventual suicide warns us of the vicious consequences of failing to let go of one's nihilism.

Through these experiences, the characters learn that estrangement is the inevitable dialectic of attachment. For example, after the deaths of their childhood friends, Myungsuh, foreseeing the path his relationship with Jung Yoon will take, breaks a promise to move him with her:

I'll isolate you from others. You'll be like an island, cut off from everyone else. I'll end up making it so that people can only know you through me. I'll end up making it so that people can only know you through me. I'll make you to not have any other relationships, and I'll try so hard to keep you by my side that it will turn us both ugly.

His explanation provides a footnote to the cruel decision by Jung Yoon's dying mother to push her away. Forced estrangement turns out to be the loving individual's strategy to avoid causing further heartbreak to those he or she loves.

Apart from Jung Yoon's retrospective voice, readers also hear the voice of a youthful Myungsuh in passages taken from his personal notebook. These short entries show a sober young man wrestling to protect what he deems important in both his personal and public life. He writes about his genuine affection for Jung Yoon, as well as his concerns about Miru's obsession. He also records his growing disillusionment with the protest movement:

The streets are quiet now. All of that excitement, like we were going to make something happen, has vanished. Our push for change has come to a standstill. Even our solidarity is now just another phenomenon. The people I once marched with have all scattered and dispersed without having changed anything.

Faced with the failures of his political goals and Miru's death, Myungsuh finally gives into the idea that all his personal and public efforts have been futile and indulges himself in drinking.

Through a series of deaths and depictions of social unrest, the novel pursues a path so distressing that readers could be forgiven for assuming that the protagonists' souls will remain permanently damaged. But pessimism is an attitudinal hurdle the reader must clear during the course of reading. Like Christopher's eventual emergence from rough currents, in the epilogue Shin emphasises the primacy of will and human connection in triumphing over challenging circumstances. Here the narrative reverts to the present, in which Jung Yoon and Myungsuh have managed to outlive the shadow of their former companions. In the end, however, through a slightly abrupt narrative twist, the novel does manage to reestablish the connection between the old friends.

While reading I'll Be Right There, I could not help but think of the waves of student demonstrations which have occurred in Hong Kong since last September. The novel certainly speaks to the sacrifices and difficult decisions between public and private concerns that disheartened defenders of democracy must make in a politically tense society. While no perfect solution has been worked out, the novel reiterates the idea that hope renews itself and gives one routes to the truth.

 
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