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Book review: Park Wan-suh — Lonesome You

Lonesome YouPark Wan-suh: Lonesome You
Translated by Elizabeth Haejin Yoon
Dalkey Archive, 2015, 252pp
Originally published as 너무도 쓸쓸한 당신, Seoul, 1998.

I came to Lonesome You with fairly neutral expectations. I had read Who Ate All the Shinga, the story of Park’s childhood in the late 1940s and through the war years. It was an interesting read, but I had nothing to say about it: it didn’t read like a novel. It read like history. It didn’t tug at any emotions. It didn’t make me think. It was the set text for an essay competition, and having read the book twice I couldn’t write the essay because there was nothing to say.

So here was a collection of her short stories. Having read too many short story collections which have left me cold (Yi Chong-jun and Krys Lee being notable exceptions, and Hwang Sun-won’s The Pond being a prime example of the dull-as-ditchwater kind) I approached Lonesome You simply out of a sense of duty. It was on the bookshelf waiting to be read, and it was scheduled for the KCC’s book club at the end of the month. The latter fact gave a little impetus to reach for the book. Maybe if I didn’t enjoy it, at least (as with Lost Souls the month before) I could appreciate it a bit better by getting the perspectives of other people.

I was gripped from the start.

It was not an urgent or thrilling plot that gripped me, though things actually do happen in these stories: they have a beginning, a middle and an end, unlike the static tableaux of early Hwang Sun-won.

It was more the wisdom of the stories that gently revealed itself to me. Here am I, a middle aged male westerner, being fascinated by the psychology of Park’s characters, who are mostly elderly Korean women, and by the voice of the author, another elderly Korean woman. I was surprised. I was not expecting these stories to have anything to say to me. But somehow the familiarity of some of the characters and the way they behave and react (human traits are universal, regardless of country or context) reached out to me across the age, gender and cultural gap. And they moved me deeply.

Lonesome You (Korean Version)Withered Flower is a charming portrait of the contrariness that exists within each one of us. The central character is an aging lady who, in the first half of the story, has her nose put out of joint by not being treated with proper, traditional, respect by one arm of her family at a wedding ceremony where they dispense with the practice of bowing to the senior family member. All they want to do is pack her onto the train back to Seoul as soon as possible rather than show proper hospitality.

But you can have too much observance of traditional values. In the second half of the story the same character resents the over-intrusive filial piety shown by her daughter who is at first concerned and then delighted at her mother’s unexpected new boyfriend. The resolution, in which the central character makes a practical if unromantic decision, works surprisingly well. This is a story about growing old as a widow, and of wanthing things to be just right.

Psychedelic butterfly centres on another difficult, contrary old woman, one who has worked hard all her life but who is now beginning to lose her marbles. She is not happy being cared for by her daughter – a struggling working mother – because it’s more in keeping with tradition that she be looked after by her son. But she’s not happy staying with her son either. Instead, she harks back to some imagined time and place when everything was rosy. And her resolution to the dilemma she faces is as about as charming as it comes. The story is structurally interesting, interspersing the narrative elements with sections which focus on the history of an old house which stands on its own against a changing neighbourhood: perhaps symbolising the mother in the story. Gorgeous.

An unbearable secret could almost be made into one of those psychological horror / mystery movies that Koreans do so well, like Tale of Two Sisters. A woman has a traumatic experience twenty years ago which has uncanny echoes down the years and sometimes horrific consequences. Part of the enjoyment in the story is its location (Gangneung and the Daegwallyeong ridge) and the woman’s search for the ancestral home of poetess Heo Nanseolheon, sister of Hong Gildong “author” Heo Gyun.

Heo Nanseolheon
Heo Nanseolheon

In Long Boring Movie we again see the issue of elder care from the perspective of the children; we feel the complex web of guilt felt by the son who for one reason or another has not been able to take on the duties expected; we experience the conflicting tangle of emotions – shame, love, duty – which might lead the daughter to take on the job when it might be easier to pay a carer to do the unpleasant work. We see a spotlight shone onto the loveless marriage of parents who only married because their own parents were keen for it to happen – and are even tempted to start sympathising with the father despite his appalling behaviour, seeing his promiscuity as an escape from the overwhelming obligations of being a filial son and dutiful husband.

The title story, Lonesome You, is perhaps the most complex psychological portrait of all: an elderly woman who seems hostile to everyone but who is nevertheless strangely familiar. This story was the least popular among members of the book group, people finding the character unsympathetic and destructive. But Park could be describing someone whom I knew very well. And she has the psychological details uncannily accurate. How does she do that?

That Girl’s House is set at the end of the Colonial Period, telling a tale of young lovers who are permanently separated by the tragedy of war. A hackneyed theme but treated with such delicacy!

When an eccentric, maladroit elderly mother who emigrated to the States decades ago returns to Korea for a family wedding with a posh suitcase with surprising contents, everyone assumes that she intends staying in Korea until she dies. Thorn inside Petals gives her backstory, illuminating the immigrant experience in America.

A Ball-playing woman tells the story of the love-child of a small-time chaebol boss and the circumscribed, unstated emotions of affection and obligation felt by the father which contrast with the downright hostility expressed by the rest of his family. It is a world in which money means power: something which the central character feels very painfully, but which could also change the balance in the unequal relationship with her boyfriend. Park Wan-suh keeps us guessing as to whether the central character will come out on top or is being led a dreadful danse. A deftly managed plot.

J1 Visa is an excruciatingly detailed psychological study of a shy under-achieving teacher and writer who is unexpectedly invited to an academic conference in America by a former student. The toe-curling indignity he has to suffer to apply for his unnecessary visa is too uncomfortable to read, while the disdain he feels for his plodding, ignorant literary translator would be hilarious if it were not so tragic. This is a guy for whom nothing will ever go right, and we feel deeply for him.

Overall, this collection of stories is a little jewel box, packed full of human understanding. Although there are very Korean circumstances and specificities in many of the stories there is the universal constant of humanity. This collection should fascinate an international audience who want to experience a window onto late 20th century Korean society seen and experienced through someone who has lived through life and is now looking back on it. Simply beautiful.


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