Brief review: Yun Ko-eun – The Disaster Tourist

Disaster Tourist: coverSome of us fancy something different from our holidays. Not for us a wasted couple of weeks lying on a beach. We want to experience history, connect with other cultures. Maybe we want to visit a place where people live on the edge, or travel to a destination untouched by the modern world. But how real are the experiences you encounter on a package vacation: those traditional performances put on by the local villagers? What do they do when not performing for the tourists? And in this world of news manipulation, when history can be twisted and falsified, how do you know that what you are experiencing is what it claims to be?

Jungle, the fictitious travel company featured in this entertainingly satirical novel, caters to a very niche market in tourism: it specialises in disaster tours. Wherever there is a natural or man-made disaster, they see a money-making opportunity:

Jungle divided disasters into thirty-three distinct categories, including volcano eruptions, earthquakes, war, drought, typhoons and tsunamis, with 152 available packages. (p2 of 186 in my Kindle version)

As the story opens, a tsunami has just wiped out the city of Jinhae on Korea’s southern coast, at peak cherry blossom time. Jungle’s operatives move swiftly to cash in:

For the city of Jinhae, [Jungle] planned to create an itinerary that combined viewing the aftermath of the tsunami with volunteer work. (ibid)

The more recent the disaster the better. No-one wants to visit the site of a disaster that happened decades ago. You almost want to be there to see the disaster unfold in front of you.

The central theme of The Disaster Tourist is a plan to freshen up one of Jungle’s poorly performing tour packages whose destination is site of a fifty-year-old double disaster: a spot of inter-tribal ethnic cleansing in an island off Vietnam’s coast, that coincided with the opening of a sinkhole in the island’s desert centre. And if the words used to describe such a human tragedy sound glib and shallow, that’s the point.

Yun Ko-eun combines deep cynicism about oppressive office culture, the exploitative nature of the travel industry and the excesses of capitalism more generally, and speculates on what might happen when such forces get out of control, in a location where the economy is so dependent on aid money and tourism that it has little else to fall back on. The plot is fast-moving and has enough topical references to keep the imaginative story-line just the right side of plausibility. Remember those sink-holes that were attributed to the construction of the Lotte World Tower in Jamsil? Prophetically, this book was written before those holes started appearing.

This is Yun’s first novel to be translated into English, and she has a collection of short stories coming out in English later this year from the same translator. Highly recommended for your holiday reading list, wherever you choose to travel.

A minor gripe: my Kindle version failed to give any information about the date and title of the book’s original Korean publication. The information below is thanks to Korean Literature Now.

Yun Ko-eun: The Disaster Tourist
Translated by Lizzie Buehler.
Serpent’s Tail, 2020, 192pp (Buy at Amazon.co.uk)
Originally published as 밤의 여행자들 (Travelers of the Night). Minumsa, Seoul, 2013
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For your own grim historical tour of Jeju Island, try Jeju Dark Tours, as featured in Jeju Weekly: a tour centred around the 4:3 incident.

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