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To Brave the Swollen Waters

I’ll Be Right There

By Kyung-sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
Other Press, 2014

I'llberightthereLate in Kyung-sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There, Jung Yoon, the story’s protagonist admits: “How eagerly I used to wish for someone to tell me I would someday be able to painlessly accept everything that had happened to us.” The “us” cuts two ways; South Korea as a nation, which struggled through the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, but more immediately, Yoon’s friends, who bear the scars of that transition, the memories of those lost or damaged or changed irreparably by the times. Shin’s novel is a poignant memorial to the experiences of a generation, crystallized in the story of fragile, damaged friends trying to make sense of their own place in a country changing quickly.

Shin is a powerful force in contemporary Korean literature, yet this is only the second of her novels to be translated into English. Her first, Please Look After Mom, became an international best-seller and won the Man Asian Literary Prize. Shin’s style is restrained. Her characters tend not to wear their hearts on their sleeves, which is at odds with the fiery passion Korean writers so often exude. Shin’s is the voice of a generation that perhaps expended its passion too young, and Sora Kim-Russell’s translation does a fine job of re-creating the quiet remains, which could easily be drowned out by the noise of the turbulent times Shin chooses to describe in I’ll Be Right There.

Most of the story takes place in the form of recollections, letters, and diaries. Yoon warns us that “I tend to confuse things that happened yesterday with things that happened ten years ago, and am prone to standing in front of the open refrigerator, trying to remember what I was looking for, only to sheepishly close the door again after bathing in the cold air.” The first-hand accounts from other characters help to bolster her personal recollections. Yet the story begins with a telephone call, which in its own way has as much to say about Yoon’s relationships as any other form the novel uses to unpack the story.

Yi Myungsuh, one of Yoon’s closest friends during her university days, has called to tell her that a beloved literature professor, Professor Yoon, who was the young students’ only real moral compass in a world seemingly on the edge of sanity is dying. Yoon and Myungsuh haven’t spoken in eight years and the conversation is awkward and distant, its familiar patterns only becoming clear at the end of the novel.

Shin’s prose and narrative structure render Yoon’s retreat into nostalgia with a dull, throaty pain as she recalls the hidden allure of Seoul ground under churning demonstrations, tear gas, and rapid economic transition. Yoon was sent to Seoul to live with an older, newlywed cousin after her mother became ill. Her mother doesn’t want Yoon to see her slow deterioration: “For my mother, sending me away was her way of loving me.” To be sent away like this is deeply confusing to the young girl. Her connection to her mother is reduced to visiting a hospital pharmacy every Wednesday to pick up medicine to mail back to her. She always gets the same reply: “‘That’s my daughter!’ Always in the same unchanging voice. Good work, daughter! Thank you, daughter!

Lost and lonely, Yoon lives in her cousin’s spare room, taping black construction paper over the window and reading Dickinson and Rilke. She doesn’t fit in at her university, and when her mother dies, Yoon takes a leave of absence, returning to her village to stay with her quiet, but clearly grieving father who wakes every morning to visit his wife’s grave. Yoon spends much of the story trying to understand and accept her mother’s death and why she was not allowed to be present at it.

Eventually she returns to Seoul and school, living by herself, this time in a tiny rooftop apartment. She makes a pact with herself to begin reading again, along with walking the city for two hours a day, and not going to her mother’s grave during Chuseok. She becomes infatuated with two students in her literature class, Myungsuh and his childhood friend Miru, who is not even enrolled pleaselookaftermomat their university, but loves coming to Professor Yoon’s lectures. On their first day, the professor recounts the story of Christopher carrying Jesus across the river, telling his students that “You are Saint Christopher. You are the ones who will ferry the child across the river. It is your fate to brave the swollen waters.” This is the directive that students of South Korea’s 386 generation (similar to the US’s own Baby Boomers) took to heart as they pressed against the barricades and suffocated on the tear gas of Chun Doo-hwan’s regime.

While the political explosiveness of the times are a backdrop, the forefront is the blossoming of the three students’ relationship, which forms the core of the novel. They try their best to allow each other into their own personal turmoils as they walk around the city, eating and exploring:

Because there were three of us, there seemed to be more to see. If one of us pointed at something and said “Look at that,” we would all come together and look as one. I saw things I would have missed on my own. Miru mostly pointed at things in the sky: dark clouds, white clouds, a blazing sunset, the crescent moon hanging primly in the night sky, a halo around the moon at midnight, birds traversing the dark… Myungsuh mostly pointed out people: ruddy-faced manual laborers working hard to make ends meet: a middle-aged woman diligently turning hairtail fish as they roasted to a golden brown over a brazier set at the entrance to the market street.

For the first time, probably since her mother sent her away, Yoon is able to form close, intimate friendships. The three invent games to play as they walk, and begin recruit more of their fellow students, and once even Professor Yoon, to join them on their walks, finding hidden corners of Seoul’s history amid the explosion of progress.

Shin is very good at the slow burn. Her characters take a long time to fully unfurl, not unlike the way the three friends write stories using the cadavre exquis method, one line at a time. They are mysterious, full of complications, reticence, and a sense of the tragic, which makes you want to turn the pages even quicker. However, in the final third of the novel, Shin seems to strain too hard to tie everything up, to reduce the mysteries to more all-purpose conclusions about the difficulties of her generation. The characters take on a more pedestrian sheen when there are no more revelations to be had.

Despite the more didactic sections of the novel, there are few books I have read recently which had such a power. Having lived in Seoul for several years myself, I was instantly returned to the teeming pungency of an older Korea that still bursts through the slick glass modernity and high-speed technology that has supplanted it. I was lost in her descriptions of places like Gyeongbokgung Palace or Namsan Mountain and the teeming markets of Namdaemun and Dongdaemun. Seoul is not typically high on the list of beautiful cities, and it has a similar quality to Los Angeles with its enormous boulevards and slapdash sixties stucco, but Shin’s descriptions cut against that grain, unearthing the subcutaneous beauty and history of one of the world’s largest metropolises and the generation most responsible for its current guise. Shin’s novel does good work to shedding light on a complicated, bewitching city, culture, and literature that the West is still not all that familiar with.

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John W. W. Zeiser lives and writes and wishes there was more shade in Los Angeles. His criticism and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of publications. You can follow him @jwwz.