Park Min-gyu’s Pavane for a Dead Princess is the first in Dalkey Archive’s second set (of five volumes) of their Library of Korean Literature. Even though I’ve only had time to read three of the first ten books, Pavane has generated a lot of buzz in the online reviews, so I thought I’d move it to the top of the reading pile.
The opening chapter, a scene in which a young couple seem to be spending their last evening together after a long time apart, is not designed to draw you in. You are meant to yearn to hear the back story of these two characters, to learn how they got to this point. But the language is overburdened with doom-laden simile, the conversation pregnant with emptiness hinting at unsaid depths. The prose is heavy, like … well I’m not going to add to the similes.
“The snow was desolate and expressionless, like guests leaving a funeral,” is the first one that we encounter, at the top of the second page. Quite effective, but it sets the gloomy tone for the chapter. On the same page, we then get “like trees that become anonymous once stripped of their bark”, “like the lights of a dying galaxy”, “like a snowman collapsing under its own weight” and one other simile before the final one on the page: “Her body was cold like that of a lifeless princess”. That, to me, is a heavy dose.
Having got as far as the beginning of chapter 2, I wondered whether I was going to be able to struggle on: another chapter in the same vein would have finished me off. But after the ponderous opening the narrative lightens up and accelerates as we start to get the back story hinted at by the first 18 pages.
What is fascinating in looking back at the first chapter is the absence of the key theme of the book; and more generally, apart from his very encounter with his “princess”, the issue hardly seems to register in the consciousness of the narrator. But to the “princess”, as to most other people in the narrative, the fact that she is one of the ugliest women imaginable defines her and the way she is able to interact with the world.
The importance of youth and beauty seems to be embedded wherever the narrator looks. His own father, a minor actor obsessed with his own looks, dumped his mother for a younger woman, an act particularly cruel given that the mother had supported him through his early career. But crucially for the “princess” the discrimination and ostracism she has faced since her childhood has fundamentally shaped her as a person. The fact that the narrator does not seem to notice her appearance, or at least does not find it important, is as inexplicable to her as it is to the reader, unless we are supposed to assume that the behaviour of his father has subconsciously influenced his own preconceptions.
The two meet at a large department store where both are low-grade workers. An intermediary between the two, the eloquent and worldly-wise Yohan (who is the only character whose name is regularly used) is central to getting their fragile, slow-burn relationship to take root.
What is particularly strange is how, when you have devoured the story of this simple, ordinary love affair and reach the point in the narrative when they have been apart for months and now meet for the first (and possibly last) time in ages, and you go back to the chapter that opens the book, suddenly the language feels natural and fluid. Put in context, the suppressed emotions and awkward conversation are entirely in keeping with the direction of the narrative and the mood of the story.
After that first (and almost last) chapter there is little more to say, though Park Min-gyu has a few final twists up his sleeve that make us think again about the narrative we have just read.
This is a beautiful book only slightly marred by the occasional over-long and rambling monologue which a sensitive editor should have asked to be trimmed. If you get past the first 18 pages, you’ll be in for a rewarding read.