Princess Bari is Hwang Sok-yong’s fourth full-length novel to be translated into English. It is also the most recent, having been originally published in 2007. And for a British audience it is one of the most immediately accessible, being based partly in London, whither Bari makes her way after escaping from North Korea.
Hwang’s narrative blends the original legend of Princess Bari, an unwanted seventh daughter, with a tale of a modern-day unwanted daughter in a middle-ranking North Korean family. A change in family circumstances and the famine of the 1990s force those North Koreans who can to flee across the border to China. So far, so similar to many refugee narratives, both real and fictional. But Bari is also the seventh daughter, and is given her name by her grandmother, who knows all the old tales including that of Princess Bari, who according to the shamanistic myth went on a quest to obtain a magical elixir which gave her powers to relieve the souls of the dead.
In Hwang’s novel, Bari comes from a family with shamanism flowing through the female line, and she herself inherits some of these powers. And thus the Bari myth is intertwined with a contemporary story of journeying and exile, and the mystic dream experiences she has in parallel with her real life existence.
Bari escapes to China from North Korea, but she is swept along by forces beyond her control until she finds herself trafficked to London. Here, rather than claiming some form of uniqueness for her condition as a North Korean migrant, Hwang makes the point that the lot of being an illegal immigrant in London belongs to many nationalities. Whether voluntary or otherwise, such an immigrant is likely to become part of an underclass whose existence is precarious and with limited if any freedom. The world in which Bari lives is shared with Pakistanis, Nigerians, Chinese and more, all of whom live in fear of being caught by the immigration authorities.
Nor does Hwang claim the shamanistic experience as being uniquely Korean – an African and a westerner in this novel share Bari’s powers of extraordinary sight.
Bari’s experience in London is fortunate in that her abilities and hard work enable her to better herself, and to pay off the debt to her traffickers in short order, but nevertheless she has an uncertain future despite her marriage and motherhood.
Hwang is known for his novels which have modern Korean history as their backdrop. This is one which has a broader backdrop – the geopolitics behind 9/11 and London’s 7/7 – as well as the harsh realities of the lives of refugees who escape North Korea and perhaps is thus an ideal introduction to this author for British readers who have not encountered him before.