Although several of you raved about this novella (including two bloggers I trust and follow implicitly, Tony and Jacqui), it took me a while to get around to reading it, because I wanted to read it in the original. This is not to throw a shade on translation in general (goodness knows, I try my best to translate too!) or the translator Aneesa Abbas Higgins in particular, but whenever I hear about the ‘sparse, understated style’ in French, I shudder thinking of how easy and simple it appears to be on the page (Camus, for example) and how it can come out sounding like nothing very much at all when you try to render it into any other language.
The novella won the Robert Walser Prize in Switzerland for literary debut in 2016 and the American National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2021, so I wouldn’t say it’s passed under the radar, but it does seem to be one of those quiet books that doesn’t make a furore and appear on all the ‘Best of the Year’ lists.
The unnamed narrator has returned after her studies in Seoul to her hometown of Sokcho to look after her fishmonger mother (who potentially has a health issue). She somewhat languidly imagined herself continuing her studies in France, since she speaks the language and her father (who absented himself from the family before she was born) was French. Meanwhile, however, she seems stuck but not unhappy in a job as a chambermaid and cook at a small hotel, in her half-hearted, not entirely satisfactory relationship with her boyfriend who dreams of a modelling or idol career in Seoul, in her repetitive, not entirely honest conversations with her mother.
Then a mysterious stranger descends upon out-of-season Sokcho. A middle-aged French illustrator (BD creator) appears at the hotel, which is virtually closed during the winter. Sokcho in summer is quite the tourist magnet, with its beaches, hot springs, nature reserves and viewing platform of the border with North Korea, but in winter it is a ghost town. The author does a great job of conveying the cold and frozen atmosphere, the distinctive fishy smells, the wind blowing through the streets, the fading, rotten atmosphere of a former pier-side attraction.
The narrator is attracted to the visitor, yet refuses to acknowledge that she is projecting her missing father figure on him. She speaks to him in English rather than in French, for example, although neither of them is fluent in that language. She prepares all sorts of tasty Korean specialties, only to be frustrated that he refuses to partake in any of the meals and instead stuffs himself with Dunkin Donuts and other junk food in secret in his room. She insists that he allow her to do his laundry… and sneaks a look at his drawings, seeming to find much comfort in the sound of his pencil drawing on paper.
At first I expected the story to go down the age-inappropriate love affair route (how very French), but the author is far more subtle than that. The fascination between the two is also the fascination between two different cultures, between a creator and his muse, between someone who is unsure of her identity and longs for certainty and someone who appears to know their place in the world… although that proves illusory. Above all, it seems to me that the narrator wishes to be seen, and acknowledged for what she is in all her incomplete imperfection. But she would never admit it, she would never beg – she seems as restrained, as cold, as cynical as the town around her. And Kerrand the Frenchman proves to be a stubborn cultural imperialist.
This is a melancholy novel of isolation, the unbridgeable gap between people and everything that is not spoken out loud, everything that we are reluctant to admit even to ourselves. An elegant tour de force also about the borders we artificially raise between people, cultures, countries.
The French edition is published by Zoe in Geneva, while the English translation is published by Daunt Books.