Monday 2 June 2014

'I'll Be Right There' by Kyung-Sook Shin

There aren't many rules around Tony's Reading List, but one informal guideline that has developed over the years is that it's always fair to give a writer a second chance, even if I didn't think much of the first try.  It's not always easy, though, especially when you're so disappointed first time around - which is why today's post should be taken as evidence to support the rule, even when the first book was a real stinker ;)

Shin Kyung-sook's I'll Be Right There (translated by Sora Kim-Russell, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is an excellent novel set in and around Seoul in the 1980s.  It all begins when a middle-aged lecturer, Jung Yoon, receives a call from a former boyfriend, in which she finds out that her favourite teacher from her university days is close to death.  As she gazes out of the window, with snow starting to fall slowly on the city, her mind drifts inevitably to her time as a student.

We follow Yoon back to the start of her student days, where she encounters several people who are to have a dramatic impact on her life.  The first is Professor Yoon, a slightly eccentric English Literature lecturer who appears out of place in the turbulent political environment of the Eighties, a man who kindles his students' love of poetry.  The second is Myungsuh, a boy who spends half of his time at the university and the other half demonstrating on the streets of the capital, and through him Yoon gets to know Miru, a young woman scarred by events of the past.  Together, they have to make their way through both young adulthood and a critical time in Korean history...

Let's get this out of the way now - I loathed Please Look After Mother.  However, I'll Be Right There is a far, far better book.  It's a story which as well as portraying those pivotal, magical years bridging childhood and adulthood, touches on a fascinating period of Korean history, where students demonstrated on the streets, in a way unimaginable now for us in the West, in an attempt to change the hardline right-wing government.

Initially, it seems as if the wider political protests, as the writer suggests in her comments on the book, will stay in the background, but when Yoon walks home from class one day, she suddenly finds herself caught up in the troubles:
"Just then a tear gas canister exploded overhead, and a huge crowd of protesters surged into the underpass to try to avoid it.  I was shoved forward with them..."
p.77 (Other Press, 2014)
What, up to this point, has been an abstract, theoretical political issue, suddenly becomes frighteningly real.  Shin switches the tempo superbly, from a casual, steady walk through a quiet city to a heart-stopping, full-speed flight for survival.  From this point on, even when the political side stays in the background, we know that it's there, waiting to play a role in events again.

On the whole, though, I'll Be Right There focuses on the micro, rather than the macro, and much of the story is centred on the small group of young adults, each of whom has their own issues to work through.  Perhaps the most fascinating figure is Miru, shy to the point of abstraction, a woman who writes down what she eats in a journal, always wears the same skirt whatever the weather - and has unsightly scars on her hands.  Despite her shyness, she builds up a close friendship with Yoon, one which helps both of them in their attempts to leave the past behind.

Strangely enough, though, this friendship threatens the blossoming relationship between Yoon and Myungsuh, as the ghosts of the past prove trickier to ignore than they had all hoped.  The structure of the novel, with Yoon's narrative chapters being followed by short extracts from Myungsuh's journal, allows the reader to see the way the two can act at cross-purposes, never quite getting to where they would like to be.  For every step they take towards each other, there always seem to be a few steps back, either because of the troubles or because of Miru.

One of the central themes of the novel is this lack of communication, or a surplus of miscommunication, which Myungsuh is quick to blame on society:
"A society that is violent or corrupt prohibits mutual communication.  A society that fears communication is unable to solve any problem.  It looks for someone to shift the responsibility to and turns even more violent." (p.158)
Sadly, each of the characters (including Dahn, Yoon's childhood friend, a man who struggles to communicate his true feelings to her) seems trapped inside their own thoughts and emotions, unable to reach out and help others - or get help themselves.  This is symbolised by the constant phone calls in the middle of night, which either go unanswered or have no one on the other end...

I'll Be Right There is an excellent read, and it has the potential to do very well for Shin in the Anglosphere.  Sora Kim-Russell's translation was excellent, balancing on the tricky tightrope between literality and over-westernising without toppling to one side, and Charles Montgomery (over at Korean Literature in Translation) does a great job of highlighting this in his review.  It's a book which you need to keep reading, and want to get back to after you've stopped; more importantly, it's also a book which stays with you long after you've finished.

Whether this will be a welcome comparison or not, I'm not really sure, but for a J-Lit fan like myself, there are obvious parallels with another big hit in translated fiction, Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood.  This begins with the first scene, where a middle-aged protagonist is whisked back to memories of their glory days, but there are far more similarities than that.  The setting of a time of student unrest, the gloomy undertones of a depressed generation, the hours of walking through the big city - all are reminiscent of Murakami's hit.

However, I'll Be Right There is a lot more than just a copy of Norwegian Wood.  Where Murakami leaves the political side in the background, having Toru avoid the university while it's going on, Shin confronts it head on, pushing her characters onto the battlefield, refusing to allow them to hide away in safety.  While Yoon, Myungsuh, Miru and Dahn also seek refuge in the arts, unlike Toru their escape isn't Jazz, but literature, and mentions abound of Emily Dickinson, Rilke's Malte Laurids Brigge and even Natsume Soseki.  Yes, there are echoes of Murakami's Bildungsroman here, but this is most definitely Shin's own story - and it's a very good one.

It would be nice to think that this might be another big success, both for Shin and the wider translated fiction community - it certainly has the makings of a popular novel.  While some (like me) might be more intrigued by the historical and social aspects, most will be pulled in by the human element, and the troubles of youth:
"We each get one life that is our own.  We each in our own way struggle to get ahead, love, grieve, and lose our loved ones to death.  There are no exceptions for anyone - not for me, not for the man who had called me, and not for Professor Yoon.  Just one chance.  That's all." (p.13)
Sadly for the characters of the novel, this idea of carpe diem more often than not gives way to fatalism.  It's no coincidence that some of the most common words in the novel are 'some day'...

I really enjoyed I'll Be Right There, and I'm confident that most people will too; it's definitely one to put on your list for future reference.  And as for Please Look After Mother...

...well, let's just pretend that it never happened ;)