Thursday, 6 March 2014

'No One Writes Back' by Jang Eun-jin (Review)

After going back to the 1930s for my first dip into Dalkey Archive's Library of Korean Literature, a balancing look at modern Korea seemed like a good idea.  My second book from the series then was a contemporary novel exploring communication, or a lack of it, in everyday life - and this one was a big hit :)

Jang Eun-jin's No One Writes Back (translated by Jung Yewon, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is the story of a young man who has been travelling aimlessly for the past three years, with only his dog, Wajo, for company.  Every day, he leaves the motel he's slept at, randomly chooses a direction and sees what the day will bring.  If it brings a conversation with a stranger (and if the stranger agrees to swap addresses), then they are added to the traveller's mental database, each being given a number.

Each night, before going to bed, our friend writes a letter about his day, either to his family or one of his collection of encounters; sadly, every time he calls a friend back home to find out if he's had any replies, the answer is always in the negative.  This long-running routine is interrupted one day though when a woman the traveller sees on an underground train decides to follow him - the woman he is to dub 751 thus becomes the first person to join him in his travels...

No One Writes Back is a wonderful little book, simple, subtle and very enjoyable.  The writer starts off by giving the reader very few details, showing us an anonymous man free of ties.  As the novel progresses, information is introduced gradually, making for a perfectly-paced story where the reader is never quite sure where the book is going (but is quite happy to be along for the ride).

The traveller sees himself as a collector of stories, writing down anecdotes about the people he meets every day, a task which has become an integral part of his travels:
"Words penned while traveling do not lie; they're not for showing off, but for making you reflect on, and take care of, yourself."
p.8 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
His letters are merely the outward manifestation of his thoughts.  Each of the random, fleeting encounters is stored away in his impressive memory, waiting to be recalled when needed.

We slowly learn more about the young man and his situation (even learning his name eventually).  For some unknown reason, he is unable to put up with living at home, constant seizures under his own roof forcing him to keep moving on a seemingly never-ending trip around the country.  In his mind, he is waiting for something to end his travels, and he suspects that this might be a letter, a reply to one of the many he has sent during his journey.  However, as we well know, no one writes back...

This is where the woman comes in, an itinerant writer peddling her latest novel, Toothpaste and Soap.  Like the young man, she is travelling for a reason, in her case to gather ideas for a new book.  Curious (and a little nosy...), she desperately wants to know more about the traveller and becomes an interruption, welcome or unwelcome, in an otherwise smooth journey.  She is 751, but who is he?  She decides, using his own logic, that he must be 0, a very apt, and enigmatic, choice.

In No One Writes Back, numbers are extremely important (the book itself is divided into 152 short chapters).  The traveller is able to categorise people thanks to his amazing memory, allocating everyone a number and then writing to them when the time comes.  This focus on numbers comes partly from the young man's mother - as he recalls when thinking of childhood:
"But more than that, you believed that all the truth in the world could be found in math.  All creations are numbers.  That was your philosophy in life." (p.48)
Gradually, however, we move away from the rational, logical world of numbers and into the realm of feelings and words, and as we do, we see a very different side to the traveller.

Even more than numbers though, it's the letters which define the novel.  In a digital world, our hero is an analogue man, preferring to commit his experiences to paper:
"I write letters because I want to convey to someone the stories of these people, but also because I want to let someone know that a day had existed for me as well.  Letters, in other words, are like journal entries to me.  The only difference is that the day does not stay with me, but is sent to someone else.  Journals are monopolized, but letters are shared." (p.13)
He clings to the hope that one of his letters will garner a reply, and when his hopes are dashed time and time again, the reader feels just as crushed as he does.  There is a far greater significance to the letters though, one which only becomes apparent towards the end of the novel.

No One Writes Back is a wonderful story and expertly paced, with Jang drip-feeding new information at exactly the right point each time.  It's written in a very smooth, simple style, and the translation appears to be excellent, making for a fluent, enjoyable read.  There's more than a hint of the Murakamis about the book, particularly his early work.  The start of the novel, with the loner main character calling his friend every day, is especially reminiscent of The Trilogy of the Rat.  Jang has her own style though, and the way she develops the relationship with the woman is excellently done - and even Wajo, the dog, has his own story :)  Towards the end, things get a little manipulative, but the events of the book never seem contrived and make for a wonderful finish.

The idea of the Library of Korean Literature is a great one; it draws people's attention and gets people to try several books, trusting that the publishers have picked a good selection of works.  One flaw though is that a really good book can be buried under the idea of the series, and I hope that doesn't happen here.  No One Writes Back is a wonderful read, one which deserves a higher profile.  It's a book which most people would enjoy, finely balanced as it is between literary quality and readability.  I'm not sure if it's going to catch the eye of IFFP or BTBA judges (although Michael Orthofer did recently sing its praises), but it's definitely one for lovers of translated fiction to look out for :)