Sunday, November 11, 2012

Book 109, South Korea: "Please Look After Mom" by Kyung-Sook Shin

Turns out Kyung-Sook Shin didn't turn up at the Singapore Writers Festival after all - claimed she was sick, although some organisers suspect she's just being a diva. 

Well, I'm here to report that any diva-dom is fully justified. This is a fantastic book: wholesome and magical and real and informative and devastating, everything I could want from a volume on my circumnavigational project.

The story (as you may have heard, given that this is indeed an international bestseller) is that an old woman named Park So-Nyo, gets lost in the Seoul Station subway - her husband always walks ahead of her, and when he turns around, she's gone. With "mom"'s disappearance, her family goes through an accelerated breakdown, narrated in second-person from the viewpoints of her novelist daughter, her property agent son, her retired farmer husband, and then her youngest daughter who's become a mother of three and - am I giving away the ending? Not really - herself.

But this isn't a tale of a search-and-rescue mission; it delves into the past of the family, reveals their struggles and sacrifices as they moved from third world living in the impoverished farming community of Chongup to the postmodern glitz of Seoul and beyond (the novelist daughter goes on book tours to China and Japan and spiritual pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela). We begin in the 21st century and we hearken back to the Korean War, to miscarriages and starvation and illiteracy, within just a generation.

The point being that even in the age of Gangnam Style, the Park So-Nyos are still among us. The women who gave up everything for the sake of the Korean New Wave who don't even go back to their home villages to perform rituals at their ancestors' graves. (At least in Singapore we're too small for that excuse, but we expatriate too, don't we?)

And oh, by the end when the mother's voice is disembodied - perhaps the reason we've been hearing a second-person narration all along is because the first-person has been the mother? Hard to say. 

Anyhow, wow. Oddly enough, I was reading this at the same time as Monique Truong's Bitter in the Mouth (did an interview with her), another book full of dysfunctional families and odd writing and food. Also thought of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse: Mrs Ramsay and the Angel of the House. Only problem being that in this case the mother is utterly fallible, utterly human, as desperate and mortal as any of us lost Gen X-ers out there, forced by circumstances to be strong.

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Representative quote: Mom looked around, as if she was going to tell you a secret, and whispered, "I broke jar lids several times."

"You broke jar lids?"

"I couldn't see an end to it. At least with farming, if you plant seeds in the spring you harvest them in the fall. If you plant spinach seeds, there is spinach; where you plant corn, there's corn... But there's no beginning or end to kitchen work. You eat breakfast, then it's lunch, and then it's diner, and when it's bright again it's breakfast again.... It might have been better if I could have made different side dishes, but since the same things were planted in the fields, I always made the same panchan. If you do that over and over, there are times when you get so sick of it. When the kitchen felt like a prison, I went out to the back and picked up te most misshapen jar lid and threw it as hard as I could at the wall. Aunt doesn't know that I did that. If she did, she would say I was crazy, throwing jar lids around."

Next book: "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven", from North Korea.

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