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B is for bleak : the bleak fest continues in Oktober

October 17, 2021 27 comments

As I said the discussion about Slobozia by Liliana Lazar, I’ve been in bleak book festival. That’s unintentional but still. For September, our Book Club picked Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-Sook. I read it after the Lazar but also after the Norek set in the Jungle in Calais, the camp for illegal migrants who want to cross the Channel and emigrate to the UK.

Please Look After Mom is a Korean novel. Published in 2008, it relates the literal loss of a mother who vanished in a metro station in Seoul. She was in the city to visit her children with her husband, they got separated in a crowded station and they couldn’t find her anymore. She doesn’t know how to read and she has a degenerative illness that confuses her. In other words, she was ill-equipped to find her way to her son’s house.

The novel has several voices as her family look for her. Her eldest daughter, Chi-hon is a famous writer. She knew about her mother illiteracy and about her disabling headaches but didn’t do anything to force her to go and see a doctor. We hear her eldest son, Hyong-chol, who bore a lot of responsibilities due to his status of first born. Her husband is almost surprised to discover that he misses her, she was his servant and a constant fixture in his life. And we hear from her, although we never know where she is.

Please Look After Mom is sad because hardly no one knows Mom’s name. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother but not often a woman. Her family realizes that they never knew who she was as a woman. They discover after her disappearance that, unbeknownst to them, she did have a life as a woman: a friend (lover?), charity work or reading lessons.

I suppose this mother is also the symbol of her generation of women: the uneducated peasant ones who worked hard, served their husbands and children, had no personal lives and saw their children move to the city after they went to school and got better jobs.

From a literary standpoint, I wasn’t too keen on the style, especially the chapters narrated with “you” all the time.

The next bleak book was Black Tears on the Earth by Sandrine Collette. (The original French title is Les larmes noires sur la terre) Phew. How bleak and desperate. It’s dystopian fiction, we’re in something like 2030.

Moe left her native Tahiti behind to follow Rodolphe to France. Their relationship disintegrates quickly. After her baby was born, she decides to leave him and as she fails to find a job, the social services take her to a place called La Casse. (The Breaker’s Yard) In this camp, the authorities park poor people and make them live in broken cars.

The cars are arranged in blocks of six vehicles and Moe is assigned to a Peugeot 308. (For non-European readers, it’s smaller than a Toyota Camry) She meets the other five ladies of her block, Ada, Poule, Nini-peau-de-chien, Jaja and Marie-Thé. Under the protection of Ada, they share their resources, protect and take care of each other and try to keep on living as best as they can.

The camp is like the Jungle in Calais described by Olivier Norek. Dangerous, hopeless and dirty. The passing fee to get out is so high that nobody can afford it. There are guards to ensure that nobody escapes. Moe has to do something to get her son out of here and give him a better life. For him she’ll take all the risks and bear all the humiliations possible.

I can’t tell you how hard it was. I wanted to stop reading and yet I didn’t feel that much empathy for Moe. The hopelessness weighed on me and as always in dystopian fiction, it’s reality pushed a little further and it is unsettling. Sandrine Collette writes really well, as I’d already noticed when I read her book Il reste la poussière. It’s a good piece of literature but you need to brace yourself for it.

The worst was yet to come with the British theatre play Love by Alexander Zeldin. The cast was British, with subtitles and composed of excellent actors: Amelda Brown, Naby Dakhli, Janet Etuk, Oliver Finnegan, Amelia Finnegan in alternance with Grace Willoughby, Joel MacCormack, Hind Swareldahab and Daniel York Loh.

The setting is a temporary shelter that belongs to the social services. People are placed there while waiting for a council flat. Colin has been there with his ageing mother Barbara for twelve months. They share a room, she’s incontinent and they hope against hope for new lodgings. A family of four has just arrived: Dean and his children Paige and Jason and his new companion Emma, who is pregnant. They were evicted and need a council flat. Dean soon learns that he lost his social benefits because he missed an appointment at the work center the day they were evicted. The other residents are two immigrants who are also waiting for a better place to stay.

We see their hardship, the simmering violence, the difficulty to live together, share a common room, a kitchen, bathroom and toilets. But there’s also burgeoning solidarity and a good dose of tolerance, empathy and politeness. They manage to retain their humanity.

The direction was excellent and the actors felt so real that we went out of the theatre with leaded shoes. Contrary to the Collette, this is not dystopian fiction. We did empathize with them. A lot. We also knew that the play was realistic and I read afterwards that it was based on true stories, that Alexander Zeldin has spent two years meeting with residents of these shelters.

That such circumstances last several months in our rich societies is a scandal per se. Art and literature always do that for you, they turn statistics into flesh and blood characters and make you acknowledge them and their problems. You can’t turn a blind eye or decide to forget that they exist. You have to face the fact that there are children like Paige, who don’t have enough for dinner, who rehearse the school play in a communal room among strangers and who need to share their space with them. It was emotional and bleak but not totally hopeless. The love between the characters still persisted and brought a timid ray of sunshine.

The Collette and the play by Zeldin both portrayed a hard society, one who thinks of poor people as delinquents and doesn’t want to see them or take care of them.

I could have drowned all this Oktober bleakness in beer but I don’t like beer. As any respecting book fiend, I picked other books to balance the acid pH of this bleakness. I chose comfort books and the billet about the antidote is upcoming. Stay tuned! 😊

Pavane for a Dead Princess by  Park Min-gyu – A bittersweet Korean novel

March 3, 2019 8 comments

Pavane for a Dead Princess by Park Min-gyu (2009) French title: Pavane pour une infante défunte. Translated from the Korean by Hwang Ju-young and Jean-Claude de Crescenzo.

For February, our Book Club read was Pavane for a Dead Princess by Korean writer Park Min-gyu. The book opens on a poetic scene. Two lovers meet up on a snowy day, they barely speak, too overwhelmed by their reunion. He wasn’t sure she would be there. The scene seems to come out of In the Mood for Love.

Then we go back one year in time. The narrator, who will remained unnamed, briefly evokes his childhood. His father was a struggling actor supported by his wife. She’s plain, too plain and simple to have such a handsome and lively husband. Success comes and wife and child are discarded as yesterday’s paper. They don’t fit in this man’s glamorous new life and they are erased from it. The narrator’s mother collapses, goes back to her hometown and the narrator stays by himself in Seoul.

We’re in 1986, he’s 19. Soon, he drifts away. He’s still in high school but drops out and starts working in the underground parking lot of a large department store. He works in the fourth underground level, in the bowels of the department store and helps shoppers park their car. He befriends Yohan who makes sure the narrator stays appointed to this level. There are downtimes at this level and Yohan and the narrator have time to speak.

They start having drinks in a bar named Kentucky Chicken. They meet there, talk, and eat a lot of fried chicken. (Fashionable food in Korea in the 1980s, according to the translator) Yohan and the narrator were both in dire need of a friend.

Then the narrator, who inherited his father’s good looks, falls in love with an ugly coworker. With a touching sensitivity, Pavane for a Dead Princess tells the tentative romance between the narrator and the girl, who remains unnamed too. She can’t believe he’s genuinely interested in her since she’s so unattractive. But they have a connection. They are both thrown in life without a proper toolbox. He hasn’t really recovered from the collapse of his parents’ marriage. That’s his baggage. She’s ugly and Park explains clearly it impacts her life. People stare at her on the streets, she cannot find a proper job and she has no hope of marrying. That’s her baggage. Yohan is their porter, he lifts their baggage off their backs long enough for them to walk towards each other.

Pavane is a difficult book to describe. Nothing much happens but the slow and deep romance between the two protagonists. Not much is described, little brushes here and there and the reader knows that behind shy looks and conversations, a solid relationship is taking roots. Both are out of the Korean mainstream: they don’t want –or can’t—invest in looks and appearances. They don’t want to keep up appearances. That makes them outsiders. And Camus is one of the authors that the narrator reads and likes. The narrator feels as detached about his life as Meursault. The girl grounds him. He has to tame her like the Fox in The Little Prince, another recurrent literary reference in the book.

This brings us to another key aspect of Pavane: the cult of beauty and the mad race of consumerism. Park portrays Korea and Seoul in the 1980s, as a negative of the narrator. He’s a high school dropout in a dead-end job. He lives alone with his cat and has only one friend, Yohan. He doesn’t go with the flow of the country. Korea is in the 1980s as all Western countries are. People want to earn more money, to be successful and show off their cash through material possessions. It was the time Madonna sang Material Girl. Their goals are dictated by raging capitalism. A good degree. A demanding but well-paying job. A big car. A big house. A partner who works just as hard and children who enter competitive schools. And good looks.

Capitalism is taking over and the narrator lives on the fringe. Park is very critical about the impact of capitalism on people’s lives and on their artificial need to buy more and more. It’s an empty race to buy the next shiny thing publicity tells you you must have. In a way, Pavane is a subversive book with main characters who refuse to play by society’s rules.

Pavane is full of Western cultural references. Its title is a piano piece by Maurice Ravel. Music is important throughout the novel as the narrator describes his state of mind via songs. I put up a playlist while I was reading and it really suits the atmosphere of the novel. Chapters are named after songs or lyrics and it’s mostly Western music that our characters are listening. Classical music, classic country, the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Pavane is an odd book with a surprising ending, concocted by a facetious writer. It’s my first Korean book and I’m not sure it’s representative of Korean literature. It’s a cousin of Norwegian Wood by Murakami and His Kingdom by Han Han. Murakami lovers will probably enjoy Park Min-gyu.

Park’s style is full of poetry, of odd comparisons and images. Yohan’s discussions with the narrator are embroidered with vivid, unusual and still spot on metaphors. It’s offbeat, humorous and philosophical. The heroes’ favorite joint has two misspellings in its neon signs. The mistakes are like Freudian slips, it gives the place some character, a bit of poetry and philosophical air. It’s written BEAR instead of BEER, Yohan and the narrator bears their lives. Hope is on the front, a mix between Korean alphabet and English. The mistakes become a symbol of the narrator’s and Yohan’s lives as outcasts. They come here together to bear and to hope.

I went through Park’s mirror and immersed myself in his story, drawn by his voice and I cared for his characters. I can picture it as a graphic novel too, with grey and light blue tones. I also liked the author’s note. After reading a book, I often wonder if I’d like to meet (or would have liked to meet) its author. In this case, it’s definitely yes. He seems to be a discordant voice in Korean literature and I’m interested in discordant voices.

Warmly recommended.

Of course, Tony has already reviewed it. Read his thoughts here.

For the fun of it, here’s the playlist:

  • Auld Lang Syne
  • Baby One More Time by Britney Spears
  • Pavane for a Dead Princess by Maurice Ravel
  • The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack
  • My Old Kentucky Home (I picked the Johnny Cash version)
  • Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds by The Beatles
  • Something by The Beatles
  • Black Bird by The Beatles
  • Michelle by The Beatles
  • Petit Poucet (Ma mère l’Oye) by Maurice Ravel
  • Strawberry Fields Forever by The Beatles
  • Gymnopedie by Erik Satie
  • Blowin’ In The Wind by Bob Dylan
  • Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right by Bob Dylan
  • A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan
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