Winter in Sokcho – Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Sometimes you come across a slew of favourable views on a new book on Twitter in a matter of days, enough to considerably pique your interest and Winter in Sokcho happened to be one such book. Everything about it appealed. The current lockdown, however, has made it quite a challenge to procure physical books but luckily, I could download it on my Kindle at a reasonable price.

Our protagonist is a young woman in her twenties who is working as a cook and a maid in a dead end guesthouse in Sokcho. Sokcho is a seaside town in the far northeastern part of South Korea, quite close to the North Korean border.

When the novella opens, the only other inhabitants in the guesthouse are a Japanese mountain climber and a young woman with her boyfriend, the woman’s face is covered with bandages. It’s winter and quiet, nothing much happens there. Until one day, the mysterious French graphic artist Kerrand arrives.

He arrived muffled up in a woollen coat.

He put his suitcase down at my feet and pulled off his hat. Western face. Dark eyes. Hair combed to one side. He looked straight through me, without seeing me.

Our narrator somehow finds herself drawn to him, maybe subconsciously she is looking to alleviate her loneliness. 

When the sauce had thickened, I added some sesame and tteok, slices of small sticky rice balls. Then I started to chop the carrots. Reflected in the blade of the knife, their grooved surface blended weirdly with the flesh of my fingers.

I felt a chill as a draught blew through the kitchen. Turning around I saw Kerrand come in. he wanted a glass of water. He watched me work while he drank it, staring hard as if he were trying to make sense of the image in front of him. I lost concentration and nicked the palm of my hand. Blood welled onto the carrots, hardening to form a brownish crust.

Kerrand in some ways is a strange man. He is looking for inspiration for his latest and final graphic novel and asks the narrator to accompany him on expeditions to absorb culture and discover the real Korea. And yet, he never has meals prepared by our narrator in the guesthouse, opting for packaged food from stores instead.

Our narrator, meanwhile, is dealing with issues of her own. She suffers from an eating disorder and is more often than not subject to scrutiny by her mother regarding her weight. It doesn’t help that she is in a relationship with a shallow man aspiring to be a model in Seoul.

To make matters worse, because of her French Korean origins and the fact that the identity of her father is unknown to her, she feels something of an outcast too in the community.

My French origins were still a source of gossip even though it was twenty-three years since my father had seduced my mother and then vanished without a trace.

In a way our narrator is a bundle of contradictions. On the one hand, she eschews opportunities to study in Seoul, letting herself waste away in a comparatively obscure town. And yet despite increased pressure from her family to marry her boyfriend, she finds it in herself to eventually end her relationship with him as her fascination with Kerrand grows.

Kerrand remains inscrutable as ever. Just what kind of inspiration he is looking for remains a mystery and in the night our narrator observes him from a distance as he feverishly sketches the image of a woman only to destroy it later in a smudge of ink.

Eventually I recognized the shape of an eye. A dark eye beneath a tangle of hair. The pencil continued in its path until a female form emerged. Eyes a bit too large, a tiny mouth. She was perfect, he should have stopped there. But he carried on, going over the features, gradually twisting the lips. Warping the chin, distorting the image. Then, taking a pen, he daubed ink slowly and purposefully over the paper until the woman was nothing more than a black, misshapen blob.

For the most part he appears unaware of the narrator’s presence but when he does notice her, the exchanges between them are intense.

Body image and the way we perceive ourselves is one of the dominant themes in this novella – nobody seems to be satisfied with what they are. The young woman in the guesthouse, whose face is dressed in bandages as she recuperates from plastic surgery, is looking for physical perfection as is the narrator’s boyfriend who is intent on grooming himself for a career in modeling. Although our narrator lets things remain the way they are, she feels conscious of her thick glasses and her propensity to put on weight. And there’s Kerrand who is possibly on a quest to sketch the perfect woman.

The novella is also stuffed with rich imagery of food – not only of meals cooked in the guesthouse, but also of the preparation of exotic fish dishes. In one section the narrator’s mother displays immense skill in cooking a type of fish called fugu, which involves separating the poisonous parts first.

Tensions with neighbouring North Korea are also palpable and we are given a glimpse of this when our narrator attempts to give a bit of historical background when she takes Kerrand around for sightseeing. This feeling is particularly heightened in one set piece where the two of them take a trip close to the North Korean border and find themselves in no man’s land where wired fences have been put up.

Winter in Sokcho, then, is one of those haunting, dreamlike novellas that I had to devour in a day. The protagonist’s feeling of isolation comes out very strongly heightened not only by the remote town she resides in, but also in the way she feels alienated from the people around her.

He’d never understand what Sokcho was like. You had to be born here, live through the winters. The smells, the octopus. The isolation.

It all hurtles towards an ending which is quite enigmatic and one which I was thinking about for some days.

The Wall – Marlen Haushofer (tr. Shaun Whiteside)

The Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer is not new to me. A few years ago I had read her novel The Loft, which I had loved at the time, but I knew that her best regarded work was the dystopian and feminist classic The Wall. The current lockdown, therefore, seemed like the ideal time to delve into it and what a brilliant novel it turned out to be.

The Wall is a powerful book about survival, self-renewal and the capacity to love.

The narrator is an unnamed middle-aged woman and when the novel opens, she is in an Alpine hunting lodge writing about the two and a half years she has spent in the forest, and the events leading upto it.

I’ve taken on this task to keep me from staring into the gloom and being frightened. For I am frightened. Fear creeps up on me from all sides, and I don’t want to wait until it gets to me and overpowers me. I shall write until darkness falls, and this new, unfamiliar work should make my mind tired, empty and drowsy. I’m not afraid of morning, only of the long, gloomy afternoons.

These events which are recounted in a couple of pages are simply this – the woman accompanies her cousin Luise, her brother-in-law Hugo and their dog Lynx (a Bavarian bloodhound) to spend the summer in the couple’s well-equipped hunting lodge in the Alpine forest. One evening, Luisa and Hugo head down to the village, but our narrator and Lynx stay behind in the lodge. The next day, our narrator realizes that the couple is not yet back which strikes her as quite strange.

While taking Lynx out for a walk, she bumps against an obstruction she can’t see and is stunned.

Fortunately, thanks to Lynx’s obstruction, I had slowed down, for a few paces on I gave my head a violent bump and stumbled backwards.

Lynx immediately started whining again, and pressed himself against my legs. Baffled, I stretched out my hand and touched something smooth and cool: a smooth, cool resistance where there could be nothing but air. I tentatively tried again, and once more my hand rested on something like a window-pane. Then I heard a loud knocking sound and glanced around before realizing that it was my own heartbeat thundering in my ears. My heart had been frightened before I knew anything about it.

She can see on the other side of this invisible wall, and what she notices is alarming. In one of the huts, on the opposite side, the dwellers have been turned into stone. Clearly, an unimaginable catastrophe has struck and the narrator and Lynx have been spared because they were not on the other side when it occurred. In a way, the narrator is possibly the last woman standing although she has not yet grasped the significance of this.

Against such a terrifying backdrop, the rest of the book then is all about how the narrator fights for survival and ekes out a living in the forest.

It is a source of comfort to her that the dog Lynx is by her side, and on one of their expeditions she comes across a cow who has also survived and who she brings back to the lodge.

At this stage, the narrator still harbours hope of being rescued but meanwhile she must adapt to her new circumstances, carry on with day to day living and caring for her animals. And that involves some hard, physical work.

She converts a cabin into a byre for Bella the cow. She learns to milk the animal so that she can feed herself, Lynx and a cat who is also now part of this small, odd family. She manages to find a patch of land where she can grow potatoes and beans. Then there is the hay harvest that she must attend to, chopping and stocking wood supplies for the winter and cooking meals everyday however meager.

These are activities the narrator notes down in her diary, and it becomes a source of the tale that she is writing for the reader.

The work is not easy and the fact that the woman has not done it before makes it all the more harder. But she manages to get it done even when it begins taking a toll on her body.

As you can see, there is not much in terms of plot per se, but The Wall makes for a terrifying and gripping read simply because the woman is in unchartered territory with unknown dangers lurking around and the reader is on the edge wondering how she will make it through.

It’s her love for her animals and her instincts to take care of them that keep her going. But naturally, she is beset by fears and forebodings. And she is also prone to bouts of depression, understandably so, fuelled by her circumstances and also changes in weather that oscillates wildly between periods of calmness and violent storms and cold winters.

There are successes – she helps Bella deliver a healthy calf, the potato field sprouts a good supply of potatoes, which means that she and her animals are never hungry. Plus, she manages to hunt deers too, an activity she loathes and never gets used to, but one which she must carry out to provide meat for the dog.

And there are setbacks too – coming to terms with the loss of some of her animals which inevitably happens despite her best efforts to care for them, and surviving an illness in the dead of winter.

As she is writing her account, the narrator is of course focusing on the physical aspects of survival. But she also talks about the thoughts swirling in her head about life, about caring, the differences between her old life and new, and the meaning of it all. To me, these were some of the most quotable and striking paragraphs in the novel. Here’s one…

If I think today of the woman I once was, the woman with the little double chin, who tried very hard to look younger than her age, I feel little sympathy for her. But I shouldn’t like to judge her too harshly. After all, she never had the chance of consciously shaping her life. When she was young she unwittingly assumed a heavy burden by starting a family, and from then on she was always hemmed in by an intimidating amount of duties and worries. Only a giantess would have been able to free herself, and in no respect was she a giantess, never anything other than a tormented, overtaxed woman of medium intelligence, in a world, on top of everything else, that was hostile to women and which women found strange and unsettling.

The deep bonding with her animals is one of the highlights of the book, so sensitively portrayed. I loved how the narrator had such a wonderful connection with Bella the cow.

I often look forward to a time when there won’t be anything left to grow attached to. I’m tired of everything being taken away from me. Yet there’s no escape, for as long as there is something for me to love in the forest, I shall love it; and if some day there is nothing, I shall stop living.

Loving and looking after another creature is a very troublesome business, and much harder than killing and destruction. It takes twenty years to bring up a child, and ten seconds to kill it.

Despite the bleak circumstances, the narrator’s strength of will to forge ahead is what makes The Wall so extraordinary. At first, she expects to be rescued and go back to her old way of life. But as the seasons roll one after the other and the months turn into years, she comes to terms with her new reality and learns to accept it. The setbacks hurt her deeply but she finds the strength to take it in her stride and look forward to new beginnings.

In the city you can live in a nervous rush for years, and while it may ruin your nerves you can put up with it for a long time. But nobody can climb mountains, plant potatoes, chop wood and scythe in a nervous rush for more than a few months.

I knew The Wall was highly regarded, and I can confirm that it is every bit as good as everyone says it is.

Untold Night and Day – Bae Suah (tr. Deborah Smith)

My knowledge of Korean literature is patchy at best and the only two books I have read are – The Vegetarian and The White Book – both written by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith.

Wanting to try out a new author and also attracted by the cover, I picked up Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day. It helped that this book was translated by Smith who did a stellar job working on Kang’s books earlier.

Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a wonderfully strange and disorienting novel.

Perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating.

The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure.

 The story begins on a straightforward note. Our protagonist is a woman called Ayami who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. Before working at the theatre, Ayami was an actor. But the paucity of roles leads to that career fizzling out. Someone recommends an opening at the audio theatre and she ends up accepting the position. It’s a job that many actors before her abandoned as they nurtured bigger ambitions, but Ayami holds on.

As future job prospects look bleak, the director of the audio theatre recommends that she apply to the foundation for another position in the arts (something he plans to do as well since it’s a job loss for him too). However, she sees the futility of this move and doesn’t apply.

Meanwhile, Ayami has been taking German lessons from a teacher called Yeoni at the latter’s house in a rundown neighbourhood. Yeoni’s teaching method involves reading from a text rather than focusing on conversation – and the text she has chosen is Sadeq Hedayat’s The Blind Owl.

Yeoni appears to be suffering from a serious illness for which she is taking pills from a blue bottle. Then one day, she tells Ayami that she is expecting a poet to come at her place and could Ayami therefore go to the airport to receive him? Ayami and the director head over to Yeoni’s house first for the set of instructions, but find her place empty and the neighbourhood completely dark. They wonder whether she hasn’t admitted herself into the hospital.

That’s the basic outline of the plot, if it can be called a plot as such.

It seems simple enough but then the strangeness begins. We get a first hint of this when Ayami is at the theatre on what is to be her last day, and she sees an old couple outside peering at the notices and what’s inside. She begins to wonder if they are her parents, and the reader who until this point was coasting along is suddenly jolted. Clearly, there’s a sense that Ayami is not sure of her identity.

Then another amazingly peculiar conversation takes place between the director and Ayami in a ‘blackout restaurant.’

His lips could be seen to move. What was visible were not the words themselves but segmented syllables that his lips produced one after the other.

‘Have I ever told you that I used to be a bus driver?’

‘No, you’ve never told me that you used to be a poet.’

‘in that case perhaps I already said that at one time I was not only a playwright employed by a theatre company but also an actor-director? And that very long time ago I was a village pharmacist?’

‘No, you haven’t told me that you were none other than my father, who was a fruit hawker.’

The director’s lips moved sluggishly.

‘And you haven’t forgotten what I wrote in the letter, that I made the decision to leave you a long time ago, far longer ago than you imagine? So in that sense, we’ve already parted?’

In the second section, we are introduced to a character called Buha who was a trader in textiles and now is a temp in a pharmaceutical company. Buha is the focal point of this section, and in a way Ayami is absent and yet she is not. Buha aspires to be a poet even though he does not want to write poetry or take literature classes.

He chances upon a black-and-white photo of a poet woman in the newspaper, and when he spots her one day in the city decides to follow her. He sees her enter Yeoni’s house. Is Ayami, therefore, the poet woman?

The book the poet woman read from every evening was The Blind Owl.

She worked in a place called an audio theatre. It had very few visitors, and only one performance a day; it was a small theatre whose audience never numbered more than ten.

In the third section, Ayami once again actively appears in the narrative and this time she meets Wolfi at the airport. She assumes Wolfi is the poet who she was to receive on instructions from Yeoni, but Wolfi writes detective fiction. Plus, Wolfi was expecting Yeoni to pick him up (he had never set his eyes on Yeoni before), and is perplexed to meet Ayami instead.

At this point, the reader begins to wonder whether Ayami and Yeoni are possibly the same person?

I’m here because my female protagonist dies. My female protagonist whose name and identity I still don’t know, that is. Where does she come from? Who is she? I have her living somewhere in Asia. More specifically, in some city in the Far East that I’m not familiar with, in the house of a woman called Yeoni. She’s an unlucky woman. Not Yeoni, but my female protagonist. Or maybe Yeoni is my “she”, my female protagonist?

One of the most wonderful things about Untold Night and Day is how the banal holds so much potential for strangeness. The characters in the book are ordinary people who don’t really stand out, but the conversations they have are extraordinary. Throughout the novel, there is a sense of déjà vu and many a-ha moments – the feeling that we have gread this description or come across this event somewhere before.

For instance, in the first section, when Ayami is in the audio theatre, a man presses his face against the closed glass doors. She observes that “the man’s eye sockets were like sunken caves in his gaunt face, and his lips were dry. The capillaries webbing the whites of his eyes were alarmingly distinct…”

In the second section, Buha saves a man from drowning and notices that “the man’s eyes were like sunken caves in his gaunt face, and his lips were dry. The capillaries webbing the whites of his eyes were frighteningly distinct.”

There are similar such instances peppered throughout the book. “Her thick black hair is secured in a low ponytail, and rough hemp sandals poke out from beneath the hem of her skirt” is another.

The ‘blackout’ is continually referenced in the novel and is an allusion to Korea’s past when curfews and blackouts were the norm. When Wolfi lands in Seoul, he finds that “the so-called international airport is in the middle of a blackout. Dark, pitch-black, blurred, all objects shrouded in shadow, a blind low-ceilinged space.” In the first section, Ayami and the director are having dinner in a restaurant that is completely blacked out. Then in the later sections, a lone white bus is described on the highway travelling at top speed at a time when the lights in the surrounding buildings are completely off.

Untold Night and Day follows the logic of a dream world and within that anything seems possible. People, objects and events seamlessly blur into one another. What’s impossible in reality is perfectly plausible in the subconscious. And on waking up, the essentials of the dream are forgotten but not the impressions it evokes. The book felt similar. There is a slippery and elusive quality to the narrative, a sense that that one can’t quite grasp what’s happening, it feels like the meaning is somewhere on the fringes of the mind but somehow refuses to come out to the front.

A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality. The language is flawless and the credit here surely goes to the translator Deborah Smith. Overall, Untold Night and Day is quite a remarkable book.

I have been quite impressed with my first foray into Bae Suah’s work and would welcome any recommendations on which of her books I should try next.

A Month of Reading – April 2020

The whole of April was spent in lockdown. I was somehow drawn towards authors whose books I had loved before, and this plan really worked because almost all the books I read were marvelous.

Like last month, I read six books in April too. Of these, I have reviewed two, and should hopefully write about the others in the coming weeks.

In the meanwhile, here is a brief round-up of what I read in April…

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

This is a fabulous book – an unsettling tale about an ostracized family sprinkled with doses of dark humour and one of the most strangest and unforgettable narrators ever – the eighteen year old Merricat Blackwood. Jackson is great at creating atmosphere that is seeped in gothic elements – the creeping sense of dread as we read about the fate of the Blackwood sisters in their large home – even if there are no actual ghosts present. 

Whose Body? – Dorothy L. Sayers

This is classic golden age crime and the first book in the delightful Lord Peter Wimsey series, who calls himself an amateur detective. A naked corpse is discovered in a bathtub and the owner of the house has no clue who it is. While the identity of the corpse and circumstances of death continue to perplex the detectives, at around the same time a well-known financier goes missing. The link between the two is for Wimsey to decipher.

Wimsey’s mannerisms sometimes reminded me of Bertie Wooster and this was a solid mystery although I hear that the books subsequently get better.

Evening in Paradise (More Stories) – Lucia Berlin

A few years ago I was blown away by Lucia Berlin’s ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’, a collection of stories that mostly drew on rich material from her real life – and what a life it was! Brought up in the remote mining camps of the Midwest, she was a lonely child in wartime Texas, a rich and privileged young woman in Santiago, and a bohemian hipster in 50s New York. She held jobs as an ER nurse and cleaning woman among others while raising four boys all one her own.

Her writing is unique, full of personality and verve and this is in full display in Evening in Paradise too, which contains a fresh batch of stories. There are 22 pieces in this book and I thought they were every bit as good as in ‘A Manual.’

Some Tame Gazelle – Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym’s world of the parish, curates and garden parties is a real delight and there were dollops of this in Some Tame Gazelle. The book revolves around the Bede sisters – Belinda and Harriet – who are spinsters. Harriet is the outspoken of the two and is more interested in the young curates who come to work in the village, even though she continuously receives marriage proposals from an Italian count. Belinda, meanwhile, has been carrying a torch for the Archdeacon in the village who has been married to another woman for quite some time. But things gets shaken up a bit with the arrival of Mr. Mold and Bishop Grote. Both these men disturb the peace of the village and leave the sisters wondering if they’ll ever return to the order of their daily routines.

Pym’s comic timing is superb and there are some wonderful conversations between the characters particularly between the two sisters. Each character is wonderfully etched and even within the narrower contours of village life, Pym has a flair for bringing out the subtle differences in human nature.

The Soul of Kindness – Elizabeth Taylor

I plan to read every book that Elizabeth Taylor has written – her writing is sublime! In the Soul of Kindness, Taylor focuses on a group of characters at the centre of which is Flora Quartermaine. Flora is gorgeous, married to Richard and they live an enviable life with a comfortable home and a child. Flora has a circle of people she is close to – her best friend Meg, Meg’s brother and aspiring actor Kit, the writer Peter with whom Meg has fallen in love, Flora’s mother Mrs Secretan, Richard’s father Percy and Percy’s mistress Ba. Flora unwittingly believes in performing acts of kindness for them without realizing that these may not always be in their best interest. All of them strive to protect her from herself but there is one character called Liz, a painter unknown to Flora, who sees Flora for what she really is.

Taylor’s writing in The Soul of Kindness is a marvel – elegant, restrained with such a keen insight into the human mind, particularly when it comes to describing the insecurities and the loneliness her characters grapple with.    

The Custom of the Country – Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s ‘The Custom of the Country’ is a brilliant, brilliant novel that explores the subtle differences between old and new money in New York in the early 1900s and the implications of divorce for women during that time. All of this is examined through her unique and unforgettable anti-heroine, Undine Spragg whose burning ambition to climb the social ladder has serious repercussions on the people close to her. Wharton’s prose is as ever top-notch, elegant and incisive.

That about sums it up. I thought the Sayers was good, but the rest of the five were simply excellent.

As May begins, I have forayed into Korean Lit – Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day. It’s already super interesting and I am wondering where Suah will be taking me.