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Book Review: The Snow Hunters

By (October 17, 2013) No Comment

Snow Hunterssnow hunters cover
by Paul Yoon
Simon & Schuster, 2013

Occasionally, we glimpse a stranger who seems off, who we’ve caught in the prolonged act of readjustment. Etched in the stranger’s face, stamped on his drooping shoulders, is a past that may well fascinate or horrify. You wonder where he’s been, what he’s seen, but can’t just waltz up and demand a life story. In his new novel Snow Hunters, Paul Yoon offers the frailty of a life in flux, one crystalline memory at a time.

The life is Yohan’s, who in 1954 arrives by ship on the Brazilian coast. Having spent the last several years fighting (for the north) in the Korean War, he suffers vivid flashbacks that numb his present and threaten to smother his future.

Long before Yohan realizes it, the war has already ended. Given the chance to leave his South Korean prison camp and head north, he stays. We feel his loneliness through mangled snippets of reality, and how “a day would come when no one would wonder about the life he had before this one.”

Yohan’s troubled demeanor invites nothing but questions, from readers and potential new friends in Brazil. In answer, Yoon delivers reminiscences about his protagonist’s time in South Korea, including depictions of a prison camp, with pristine elegance:

He slept in a cabin with other prisoners and in the winters the heat of their bodies kept them warm. Moonlight kept them company, the way it leaked through the timber walls and shifted through across them as the hours passed; and sleepless, he thought of his father and all that snow in the winters in that mountain town where Yohan was born and had lived and it all seemed so far away to him then, as though the earth had expanded, his memories, too, he could no longer grasp them. And only then, when those thoughts began to recede, fading into a thin line, would he sleep.

Once in Brazil, Yohan slowly acclimates to the language and culture under the tutelage of Kiyoshi, an elderly Japanese tailor. The reader spends much of this time in the Yohan’s past, as memories of an old friend named Peng fade in and out. They had been childhood acquaintances, but never close until both became South Korean prisoners. Peng haunts Yohan’s subconscious like an after-burning glimpse of the sun. Yoon’s rich imagery enraptures the reader, but also disorients:

He lay in the clearing, unable to rise, his body illuminated by the electric lights of the perimeter. He opened his eyes, in that brief moment, with two weapons pointed at him, and felt the unexpected joy of glimpsing at the stars.

We also see flashes of those who’ve been battered and murdered, as well as barefoot soldiers waiting to accept boots stripped from the deceased. These images, not easily shaken, are piled high in the back of Yohan’s mind.

Without speaking Japanese or Portuguese (yet), our refugee works silently alongside Kiyoshi, spiritually mending in the process. They toil back to back, sleep under the same roof, and sip the same tea; though it’s never explicitly stated, Yohan learns resilience from the tailor:

[He] followed the light reflecting against the pin, the way it fell from Kiyoshi’s fingers, the bright silver spinning in the air before it hit the floor. Kiyoshi kneeled and ran his palms along the wood.

And then began to cry, kneeling there with his head bowed and his shoulders shaking.

In the years to come, Yohan would think often of that night. Why he did not go to him. Why he stayed behind that curtain, watching all this through a narrow space. Why he turned soon after and returned to his room, where he lay on his mattress, unable to sleep.

But before he left a curious thing occurred. Kiyoshi wiped his face. He stood.

Yoon highlights the great significance of the seemingly minute. He also uses raw, mortal gestures to humbling effect, especially in the case of homeless siblings Santi and Bia. Friends with Kiyoshi, they come and go at their own discretion (like most people in Yohan’s life). Bia, the older sister, is a benevolent presence while the younger Santi is more naïve and rambunctious:

Santi used to approach the people of the town, asking them if they were his mother or father, the men and women looking down at him in either confusion or amusement or sadness as he lifted his hand for them to shake.

But what Snow Hunters does best is drift between the stark contrasts in Yohan’s life; from war’s chaotic destruction to a village’s contemplative peace. And it does so with medicinal simplicity, sure as the fact that, “[Yohan] had arrived and he had stayed. He made a life. He had entered the future.”