Tag Archives: Korean literature

A profound, lyrical incantation: Hwang Jungeun, I’ll Go On

Translated from the Korean by Emily Yae Won (Tilted Axis Press, 2018)

I’ll Go On was the final 2018 release in my Tilted Axis subscription, and I’d been eagerly awaiting it all year. It is the story of sisters Sora and Nana and their family bonds: with their damaged mother, Aeja, who was once brimming with love but has now given herself over to grief, with the enigmatic yet tender boy next door, Naghi Oraboni, and with Naghi’s mother, who fed and sustained Sora and Nana through their childhood. The original title, Soranananaghi, binds the three main protagnists’ names together in an incantation, also incorporating the word ‘sonagi’ (meaning ‘downpour’), and both of these meanings are echoed one drunken evening in three drops of water that Naghi names as Sora, Nana and Naghi, and that join together to make one single body of water. The English title is brilliantly chosen, as it is a phrase repeated like a refrain throughout the book: “I’ll go on” is the epitome of the characters’ determination to live out their lives, resigned to not feeling happy. This is far from being the only example of Emily Yae Won’s deftness in the translation: there are many references to the characters that make up the Korean names, and her incorporation of these never feels heavy-handed or “textbook-like”. I always find it hard to imagine the translation process from a language I know nothing of and a culture I know little about, but this translation seemed to me to keep all the cultural importance of the original, and some of the linguistic features, while still ensuring it was a smooth read in English.

Image from tiltedaxispress.com

I’ll Go On is narrated in four parts: Sora, Nana and Naghi all take their turns narrating, and then Nana takes over again for the short final section. I have come to greatly enjoy stories with multiple narrators, and one of the things I like about this technique is exemplified brilliantly in I’ll Go On: viewing the same event from different perspectives. The meeting of Sora, Nana and Naghi as children is recounted by both Sora and Naghi, likewise the revelation that “single-member tribes do exist in the world, you know”; an incident when Naghi strikes Nana to remind her that “forgetting, that’s how people turn monstruous. It’s how you become oblivious to other people’s pain” is remembered by both Nana and Naghi, and tense conversations between Sora and Nana are related by both sisters.

At the heart of the story is Nana’s pregnancy: Sora, the older sister, has always looked after Nana, and now feels that Nana has betrayed her, bringing another life into their family unit. Sora resents the pregnancy but tries to be kind; Nana resents Sora for trying to be kind. Sora’s only concept of motherhood is painful: she addresses Nana in her internal monologue with the musing:

“Has Nana set her heart on becoming a replica of Aeja?
Is that it, Nana.
You want to be another Aeja?
Fall in love like she did, and make a baby, and then have the baby, all so you can turn into an overbearing mother?”

As for Nana herself, she struggles with her (lack of) emotions towards the baby growing in her womb: she likes the father well enough, but does not want to marry him, and does not want to form an attachment to her child:

“When it comes to love, that seems about the right amount of emotional involvement: to be able to soon get back on your feet no matter what occurs. Where whether by mutual agreement of by one-sided betrayal or because one of you vanishes into thin air overnight, the other can manage to say, in due time: I’m fine. That seems about right. Even once the baby is here, Nana has decided that that will be the extent of her love for the child and for Moseh ssi.
Pouring all your heart into love as Aeja had done – that level of devotion is what Nana wants to guard against.”

Love is an emotion that can turn sour, that can become overwhelming grief, that can leave you a husk, and neither Sora nor Nana want this kind of love to befall them. They prefer recognisable parameters: companionship, shared memories, walls around the heart. And yet, it is in her attitude towards her unborn child that Nana realises with horror how like her own grief-hardened mother she is becoming: “It dawned on her that having been so intent on her own pain, it hadn’t occurred to her to consider the unequivocal anguish now presented before her. And that this made hers the closest likeness to that heart which Nana wholly detested, namely, Aeja’s heart.” The selfishness of Aeja’s pain, the way in which it closed her off to the pain of others, including her own children, is replicated in Nana – and yet this is not portrayed in some moralistic, daughter-understanding-the-mother way, but rather to show the terror of a child whose mother would prefer to leave the world than care for her, on realising that she too has allowed herself to become so consumed by pain that she cannot see the pain she is inflicting on others. And so we see a cycle: of life, love, resentment, and of the ways in which all three main characters are trapped in a past they cannot set free. This is reflected in Aeja’s repeated questioning of Nana about her pregnancy: Aeja chants “Are you happy? Are you happy? Are you happy?” without waiting for an answer, and Nana listens to “the question that’s being repeated over and over like a curse.” Aeja’s lack of happiness in her own life did not prevent her from wanting happiness for her children, but she fails to see that it is her own behaviour that has wrung out all possibility for happiness from them.

The main emotional connection the three narrators share comes through food: they were all nourished through childhood on the food prepared by Naghi’s mother, Ajumoni, a hardworking widow whose only desire in life is to have a grandchild. Just as it was Ajumoni who fed Sora and Nana through their childhood (“They were the plainest of lunchboxes. Plain and commonplace. And yet to have contained so much in such a compact form is nothing short of immense”), so it was also Ajumoni who gave Sora and Nana the maternal love they lacked in their own home, and it is her food that sustains them even as adults, when they gather together to make dumplings, setting their differences aside as they work together to prepare a feast, the taste of which embodies for Nana “The longing, the delight, the tenderness, the fear, the loneliness, the regret, the joy – all muddled, all at once. All one big mess.” Ajumoni’s food defines both childhood and home for Sora and Nana, to the extent that “no matter what delectable and fine food they may come across now, anything that’s not of this home is simply – for Sora and Nana both – other, the taste of not-home.”

Hwang is adept at crafting profound philosophical reflections in the quietest of ways: the fleeting nature of human life within the vastness of history is made evident in the assertion that “the world’s end will only befall us gradually, and this will give Nana time to think properly about things”; the overwhelming nature of pain is given shape in Naghi’s description of Aeja’s widowhood, when he acknowledges that “over a lengthy stretch of time, she has steadily, inaudibly, fulfilled her pain and become whole. She has hauled her pain over herself, covering herself entirely with it, like a carapace”; the physical depth of love is evident in Naghi’s claim that “This sensory memory is a yearning, and will never be erased. If it is to be rubbed out, it will be the last memory to go, It will leave me only in my final moment”, and perhaps Hwang’s characters are best defined by Nana’s conclusion about human life: “People are trifling, their lives meagre and fleeting. But this, Nana thinks, is also what makes them loveable”. These are some of my favourite lines from the novel, and show the lyrical beauty to be found within it. What could be a fairly depressing story is raised to a thing of crystalline incandescence because of the sensitivity and humanity with which both author and translator craft this work.

The line that most struck me and lingered on in my memory is one that I wish I could shout out to everyone I pass, to those who are close to me and those who are not, to friends and foes, to world leaders, the people who vote for them, and the people who oppose them. And I’m going to leave this line as the last word, in the spirit of the #WiTWisdom pledge that I mentioned last week: “Don’t erase things from the world just because you are incapable of imagining them.”

 

“I will give you white things”: an exquisite exploration of grief. Han Kang, The White Book

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books, 2017)

The White Book is a short meditation on mourning, as Han Kang explores through words a loss that has accompanied her throughout her life: her mother gave birth prematurely to a girl who lived only two hours, and Han has lived with the knowledge that “I’d been born and grown up in the place of that death.” Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, The White Book is another stunning collaboration between Han and Deborah Smith, though very different from the book with which they previously won the MBI, The Vegetarian. As you may know, it was Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian that kick-started the Women Writing Women Translating Women project, and it took me a further seven months and over 40 books before I returned to another collaboration between the two. The White Book had been on my to-read list for some time, but if I’d been putting it off, it was because I suspected it was going to be bruising to read. And though in some ways it was, it is also an incredibly uplifting and beautiful book. Even the cover is stripped bare, and seems vulnerable, fragile, serene, with a raised typeface on the front making it seem like an object to touch and feel as much as to read. And it is certainly like no other book I’ve read this year: it is close to poetry with its sparseness and its short lines, its placement on the pages leaving white spaces that seem to be both a void and a possibility. There is something almost spiritual in the reaching out for a connection with a sister to whom Han acknowledges that “if you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now”. Part invocation, part incantation, The White Book explores a deeply internalised mourning and brings it to some kind of light: the two sisters were never to meet, and still cannot meet on the pages of a book, but yet there is some kind of in-between space, “the gap between darkness and light”, between the blank page and the words on it, where they can each make out the other’s face.

Image from portobellobooks.com

Smith’s translation just took my breath away. I truly believe that she is a very special translator; I do not doubt that this was a difficult text to translate, to grapple with, to absorb and to reflect, but Smith makes it seem effortless. She has that rare talent of making a translation her own without deflecting or vampirising any of the admiration owed to the original. I’m curious to read her translations of other authors, to know whether there’s some special kind of alchemy between her and Han, or whether Smith brings this kind of vulnerable wisdom to all her projects… On almost every page there was a word or a turn of phrase that was so unexpected and yet so absolutely perfect, words layered with meaning, that when placed with the other words next to them turn something simple into something dazzling. Let me give you a couple of examples to explain what I mean: “they would have felt lacerated by happiness. Which would have been life. Which would have been beauty”; “like a clutch of words strewn over white paper”: I would never have thought of being “lacerated” by happiness, yet it shows how the yearning of a soul to live, to find hope, is something close to pain. And what is the mass noun for a collection of words? “Clutch” says so much here: the grouping together of the words, the closeness of the black type on the white page – all of which is aesthetically evident in this book – but also clutching onto something intangible, desperately reaching out with words towards something that slips away… a tale that clutches at your heart.

Growing up “inside this story” of her sister’s death has clearly been a transformative experience for Han, knowing, as she acknowledges to the sister she has never seen, that “my life means yours is impossible”. So what kind of ending can be given to a book this deep, this raw? Han parts from her sister, but draws into herself everything of her sister’s life and death:

“Don’t die. For God’s sake don’t die.
I open my lips and mutter the words you heard on opening your black eyes, you who were ignorant of language. I press down with all my strength onto the white paper. I believe that no better words of parting can be found. Don’t die. Live.”

This inscription of love and loss onto the white paper, imprinted there with “all my strength”, gives life to the sister; pressing down onto the paper, rather than writing on it, transfers the deep emotions in a near-transcendental way. Within the pages, “within […] all of those white things”, writes Han, “I will breathe in the final breath you released.” And so rather than imprisoning a barely-caught memory of her sister within the pages of a book, Han uses the book – both the writing of it, and the artefact of black on white – to bring her sister into herself, and give her life not by writing for her, but by living with her. No easy “healing through writing” is offered up – though right from the start Han acknowledges that she is writing to transform her pain: “the process of writing it would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.” But to say that articulating pain means that it disappears is to simplify human experience in a way that Han resists, as she explains that “learning to love life again is a long and complicated process.”

There is depth and complexity on every page of The White Book; this is a book that aches and meditates, not one that offers answers, unless it is simply that “nothing is eternal”, not even suffering. It is both a journey and an endless circle: neither birth nor life is posited as the opposite of death, but rather they are all exposed with unflinching honesty as part of the same continuum. Just as white and black are not depicted as opposites, nor are life and death. Instead, life is plural, endless, twisting – and so is death. What struck me most of all – whether it is intentionally in the text or just my interpretation of it – is that this book is about love. “I will give you white things” writes Han, and offers to her sister, in writing, the breast milk she never lived to drink, the snowflakes she would never see, silence condensed into a pure white pebble, the candles that are lit to her memory. And in so doing, instead of living with the spectre of a dead girl, she offers her life from within herself, the white cloud of breath escaping on a cold morning. This is not a book to read if you want a story, a plotline, or a formula, but if you want to read something incandescent, then this is for you.