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.