Thursday, November 3, 2011

Super-Omma: The Guilt Museum, Korean Style

Just a quickie for now: the latest book I've read is Kyung-sook Shin's Please Look After Mom (Knopf, 2011), very well translated from the 2008 Korean original by Chi-young Kim. It's the story of an old woman who goes missing one day in Seoul Station, while visiting her grown children with her husband. Anyone who's struggled their way through rush-hour subway crowds will understand how someone could get separated and lost, especially an illiterate country woman who's had a few small strokes and gets confused easily.

Because of the prevailing climate against "spoilers," I'm not going to tell the book's outcome, which is not really a spoiler, because Please Look After Mom isn't a plot-driven novel. It's really about the characters: the unmarried older daughter, a writer who travels around the world and still is surprised when one of her novels is transcribed into Braille for blind Koreans; the married younger daughter, a pharmacist; the oldest brother who became a (reasonably successful) businessman instead of a prosecutor as Mom had hoped; the husband, who'd failed his wife so many times before finally losing his grip on her hand in the crowd one day in Seoul Station; and, of course, Mom herself, the archetypal Korean country woman, who never seems to stop working, cooking, cleaning, gardening, sewing, mothering. The prevailing mood is guilt, since, as usually happens in such a situation, everyone reacts to Mom's disappearance by thinking that it could have been prevented if only he or she had behaved differently, slowed down, treated Mom with a little more consideration, paid more attention to her needs instead of taking her for granted. It'll resonate for most people who've had (or been) a mother.

It's still a specifically Korean story, embedded in the national history of Japanese occupation, postwar division, civil war, dictatorship, cataclysmic economic development, and transformation from an agrarian to a high-tech industrial urban society. While Ma (if I'd been the translator, I'd have chosen "Ma" over "Mom," since "Ma" better conveys the Korean "Omma" [accented on the second syllable]) is a supermom, she reminds me of some Korean mothers and grandmothers I've met, and I didn't feel that she was an idealized figure; Shin managed to keep her human, and any American whose parents lifted him or her to social mobility on their shoulders will probably feel a twinge of guilt on reading the book. Shin braids in an immense load of detail, so the novel doesn't feel like a mere upbraiding of an ungrateful child ("After all I've done for you ...! Just wait till you have children!"). I also recognized much of the city landscape from my visits to Seoul, which helped my own experience reading it.

I now see that Mom was adapted for the stage in 2010. Kyung-sook Shin is a country girl herself, born in 1963 in a village in the impoverished southwest of South Korea. (Jeolla Province, for those who'll recognize its significance.) She's done well for herself as an author, winning many literary prizes, culminating in the translation of Please Look After Mom into nineteen languages after it became a huge bestseller in Korea. I liked it, and it could be a good introduction if you haven't tried contemporary Korean fiction before. I hope the translation's success will lead to more of Shin's writing appearing in English soon.