When you hear a Korean abroad refer to the locals as “stupid whiteys”, and soon afterwards refer to his fellow countrymen as “mannerless gooks” you know you are dealing with someone who doesn’t feel at ease with himself. This is Han-rim, a Korean immigrant into Australia, who two years previously has divorced his wife and now spends his time between a trailer and a small boat running fishing trips for tourists. Neither place can be called a home, but maybe they are all that Han-rim needs.
The characters in Kim In-suk’s first novel to be translated into English are not the stereotypical hard-working or high-achieving Korean immigrant you might expect. They aren’t there to make better lives for the next generation. Han-rim has even left his children in the care of his wife. And although his brother Han-yeong looks disparagingly on Han-rim’s status as a self-professed “free man”, and “had become a cog in society who felt terror when he didn’t fit in somewhere,” he nevertheless quits his steady, well-paid job at an architectural firm to escape the “suffocating regularity” of his work. Myeong-u, the third main character in this elusive but nevertheless warm and strangely moving novel, is given the chance to set up his own cleaning operation but instead prefers to do the low-paid work himself.
The three men go on a fishing trip together off Port Macquarie on the east coast of Australia, and as the fish get reeled in, and the storm forces them to shelter inside their cabin, the narrative flits between their conversation in the present and flashbacks which examine their pasts and their reasons for being in Australia.
All three have their reasons for leaving Korea, though not all of them really stack up. Han-rim was a folk singer in the 1980s who released a song (the Long Road of the novel’s title) that was banned by the military dictatorship. Myeong-u was an activist of sorts, and manages to secure permanent residency as a refugee, quite a feat at a time when South Korea now had a civilian governemnt. And Han-yeong is more of an economic migrant, though perhaps he is also running away from a girlfriend he didn’t feel he could settle with: indeed in one flashback we learn that it was the advice of a prostitute that he should forget his girlfriend that was the final impetus needed for Han-yeong to depart.
None of the characters seem destined for happiness, and all seem damaged or flawed in some way: Han-rim, who is so bitter about his native country but yet doesn’t feel at home in Australia and has never really managed to give up the drugs he took as a singer; Myeong-u who suffers from insomnia and autism and who feels no connection to Australia despite his permanent residency; and Han-yeong who feels like a “trampled piece of garbage”.
The ambivalence of the characters is set in the context of a trip on an ocean which itself is ambiguous in nature. Right at the beginning of the novel, the scene is set thus: “With dawn the sea slowly unveiled itself, revealing both surging crests with white fangs and delicately furrowed waves. That the ocean moved not only as an immense mass but with fine texture was a wondrous thing.”
The weather provides a metaphor for the condition of the migrant in a new country which can be full of opportunity: “In Australia it was entirely possible to have brilliant sunshine in front of you and lightning flashes behind”. Kim In-suk’s characters live in between the possibility of sunshine ahead and the troubled past behind, but somehow seem unable to escape the past.
More than anything, it seems that the characters want to forget their past, though as the novel ends the narrator realises that he needs precisely the opposite: “What I need is to remember my wounds, to cherish them until they scour my whole heart, to endure them to the bitter end.”
Kim herself has lived abroad both in Australia and China, and her novel captures some telling insights into the migrant experience. If the lives of the characters in The Long Road seem incapable of resolution, the examination of the journeys they have taken provides rewarding reading.