I usually read with my head. Books that try to claim my heart, frequently meet with my resistance. I like to second-guess an author if they are trying to make me weep, feel sad, or to tug at my emotions. The books that seduce me are mostly darkly funny to mask their sadness. I loved ‘The Forgotten Waltz’ by Anne Enright; I like her writing, the wicked way she carves into your heart through your head. We bring to our reading so much of ourselves, both our past selves and the now. My youngest son lives in Seoul, is married to a Korean girl and has through marriage, become part of a Korean family. I have visited Seoul now three times and I love the city and the people and most especially of course, my son’s wife and her family. Add to the mix, that I am almost 62, the same age that my mother was when she died. Then one more ingredient. I am in Sydney on a short holiday, which is where I was working forty years ago, when my Aunt phoned to say ‘come home’ your mother has had a heart attack.
So, perhaps I am predisposed at this particular time, for this particular book that has just won the Man Asia Literary Prize Please Look After Mother by Kyung Sook Shin translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim. I found it heart-breaking. Almost from the start, my heart was breaking. It is such a superbly simple, yet deeply affecting novel. I’m not sure if it is because the book is in translation that the writer is so easily able to transgress, to override, to ignore my self-erected emotional barriers.
I cried easily and without self censure. It is a beautiful story, made all the more affecting because of the shifting perspectives in each chapter, as the family set out to find their mother, lost at Seoul Railway Station. Seoul is one of the most modern, populated cities in the world today. The mother in this novel who has always walked a few steps behind her husband, fails to get on to the train and it’s only after the train has left the station that he realises she is not on it. We get to hear from her children and from her husband how they see their mother, now that she is missing as they comb the train stations, hand out flyers, and revisit parts of Seoul they lived in years ago, where she might have gone looking for them.
The first voice is her daughter, now a feted and famous author and she recalls spontaneously going to visit her mother one day after one of her novels is translated into Braille and she had read to a group of blind people. She buys an octopus and visits her mother. It is the blending of food, train stations, cultural customs, convention, tradition and modernity that makes this book sing. Yes, I admit, I found even the names of places enchanting, because I recognised them, newly recognised them, and felt a connection. My son is fortunate to have the loving affection of his wife’s family and because he is vegetarian, when he visits his mother-in-law, she prepares all his favourite foods with delicious meat substitutes, pampers him, mothers him, and as his mother back in New Zealand, I feel deep gratitude for this. So, yes, I am the perfect candidate for this book, I recognise that.
When my mother died, I was young and travelling; just back from living in London and now in Australia, doing my own thing. I didn’t want to go home when she had her heart attack. In fact, after I received the phone call from my aunt, I waited another two days until I received an urgent ‘come now’ and I abandoned my job and flat on the very same day to fly home. I still recall the mad rush to gather my belongings (modest thankfully) from a flat on the North Shore and the taxi driver in New Zealand when I arrived, eschewing my attempts to tip him as he carried my heavy suitcase for me. But I was resistant, callow and self-interested, unable to really give my mother my full attention, even when she was dying. This book explores those very themes through the eyes of the children of the mother lost at Seoul Station. They explore their memories of their mother, their last encounter with her.
And so, here I was in Sydney again after many years, catching up with a friend with whom I had flatted in London in 1972. I was in a cheap but modest Pensione on George Street. Across from Central Station is the strange-shaped Dental Hospital building where it was I worked when I received the phone call about my mother. I rode the trains reading this novel, and now the doors on the trains close automatically, but back then, I rode the trains in the hot summer and the doors never closed. My heart was in several places at one time. I was in Sydney now and back then; I was in London, I was in love, I was all over the place, warmed by the Sydney sun and completely disarmed by this evocative novel.
Kyung-Sook Shin manages to incorporate with subtlety, the extraordinary history of South Korea , from poverty to extreme modernity in sixty years, without being particularly political or weighty posturing. I recently readBruce Cumings ‘The Korean War’ which is heart-breaking in a different and more factual way, and gives insight into the plight of the North Korean people both during the war and after – ‘the oceans of napalm’ dropped on the North by the United States and read that during the Korean war, four million Koreans were killed, two thirds of them civilians. So, yes, Korea, both the North and the South have an extraordinary recent and mostly untold history.
I have only one small quibble with the novel and perhaps that is the ending. But that too may reflect something of my prejudice and predisposition. I won’t spoil the ending, but I felt it was perhaps too overtly symbolic, but still, a very small quibble. The translation isn’t always perfect either but somehow for me that lent authenticity to the text, so that I knew it was a translation and I wished that I could read Korean, to see the words in their original context. I wondered would they be more, or less, sentimental from a native speaking perspective.
Please Look After Mother broke my heart a little and it was lovely to have it broken. I can see why it is a best-seller. But too, I can see how this review from the New York Times was written with a more cynical and critical reading – yes, I can see this point of view, but this time, I left my head and followed my heart, and that’s okay, it’s only fiction. It seems the book has also been translated as Please Look After Mom and that evidently sealed its fate for many, as a piece of sentimental fiction – the whole ‘Mom’ thing. I guess this also goes to show, how much of ourselves we bring to our reading.