Monday, July 14, 2014

I'll Be Right There

While I'm at it, let me add another book I've read lately that I liked a lot: I'll Be Right There, Kyung-sook Shin's latest novel to be translated into English, just published in the US.  I was very impressed by its predecessor, Please Look After Mom, and I'll Be Right There is even better.  (Alert, for those who might be concerned: a possible Spoiler below -- not for I'll Be Right There, but for the recent Disney animated feature Frozen.)

I'll Be Right There follows three South Korean college students in the early to mid-1980s, when South Korea was still ruled by a military dictatorship, with tear gas wafting through the streets almost daily as police chase, beat, and kill dissidents.  It begins when Jung Yoon, the principal narrator, gets a telephone call from one of the other two, informing her that their beloved literature professor is dying.  Jung Yoon begins to recall her college days, when she first attended Professor Yoon's class and met the handsome Yi Myungsuh and the beautiful but mysterious Yoon Miru.  Gradually the three become inseparable; while there are romantic/erotic sparks between Yoon and Myungsuh, Yoon is intensely and physically fascinated by Miru and vice versa.  I don't mean to suggest that there are "explicit gay overtures" between them; what I find interesting is that Shin puts friendship, between women or between women and men, in the foreground in a way I don't see often enough in today's fiction.  The core relationship in the book is a triangle, but without competition or jealousy among those involved.

(The proliferation of Yoons in that paragraph might confuse some readers, not least because the publicity for I'll Be Right There puts the author's name in Western order, with her surname (Shin) put last, but in the text of the novel the names are in Asian order, with the surname first.  So Yoon is Jung Yoon's first name, but it's Miru's and Professor Yoon's surname.  Nor are Miru and the Professor related: in Korea there are many surnames, but a few (Kim, Lee, and Park) account for almost half the population, and Yoon is the eighth most common.  Until fairly recently, Koreans with the same surname couldn't legally marry, even if they were very distantly related if at all.)

By chance, I saw Disney's Frozen last night, for the second or third time, with a Mexican friend in his twenties who was delighted by it.  Frozen breaks with the convention that only erotic relationships count by making a heterosexual friendship (between Anna and Kristof) win out over a heterosexual romance (between Anna and Hans), but even more by reminding the audience that "love" doesn't only mean only an urge to copulate: the "act of true love" that breaks the deadly spell in the story's climax isn't between a man and a woman but between two sisters.  (I'm having trouble parsing the facial expressions on the sisters' faces, especially Elsa's, on Frozen's website, though: it reminds me of the looks butches used to give femmes on the covers of 1950s lesbian pulps.)  The interest between Kristof and Anna (which parallels that between Myungsuh and Yoon) is taken for granted, but not really developed, compared to other relationships that are at least as important.

Watching Frozen last night, I was struck again by how dark it is, with treachery, violence, and endless winter treated as real threats.  ("Oh -- I'm impaled!" says the magical snowman Olaf cheerfully when he realizes he's carelessly run onto a giant horizontal icicle.)  I'll Be Right There is even darker, set as it is against the backdrop of the Chun dictatorship.  Jung Yoon's mother, we learn early on, died of cancer just before Yoon entered college, and sent her to live with a cousin in Seoul to spare her.  Many more important people in the novel die by various kinds of violence, and Yoon herself is caught in the crowd when police attack a student demonstration with tear gas, driving them into a enclosed area to to round them up.  Yoon escapes, but many others don't.  Grief runs through the characters' lives, and if the overall tone is positive, its hopefulness is hard-won.

I'll Be Right There is well-written, and translator Sora Kim-Russell has done a wonderful job.  (It seems to me that the quality of translations from non-European languages has improved immensely in the past couple of decades.)  It's not only about grief and suffering; aside from love and friendship, it's also about literature as a broadening force for the intellect, and for that matter the rewards of living in the city.  I responded strongly to this passage from page 71, for example:
I made the right decision to learn about the city by walking around it.  Walking made me think more and focus on the world around me.  Moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other, reminded me of reading a book.  I came across wooded paths and narrow market alleyways where people who were strangers to me shared conversations, asked one another for help, and called out to one another.  I took in both people and scenery.
I know many of the areas of Seoul that Yoon explores, so reading I'll Be Right There filled me with longing to return.  Someday.  I'll be right there.