Tsunamic Climax in Korean Novel

Chatting at a well at night. Painting by Hyewon, circa 1805 (late Joseon period). Photo: [Public Domain] via Wikimedia.

No One Writes BackNo One Writes Back by Eun-Jin Jang

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel was recommended to me by a friend (who is of Korean descent), after discussing my enjoyment of Han Kang's The Vegetarian. The Library of Korean Literature brings modern Korean novels to an English-reading audience (much like the Japan Library). This novel was translated by Jung Yewon.

The protagonist reminds me of the main character in The Rosie Project, but this is a more serious work. The paragraphs are numbered, and I found the structure to be unusual.

I recall in high school English how we would map the trajectory of a novel's plot, from the build up to the climax and the anti-climax. This novel builds up slowly, and I recall thinking it wasn't very good. The basic story line is a seemingly autistic man in his thirties who has broken up with his girlfriend, quit his job as a postman, and travels randomly from town to town with his late grandfather's seeing-eye dog who is old and blind. 

As he meets people on his journey, the protagonist asks them for their address, he then assigns them a number (he is much better at numbers than names), and sends them a letter during his journey. He meets a woman he wishes to be rid of but he helps her sell her novels on the various subways and they stay in motels as they both travel around. He will end his journey when one of his travelling numbers writes back.

After a while, this becomes a bit tedious, but interesting in that one has to know where it is going. The lead-up to the climax is long and drawn out and in the last few pages, the climax brings a tsunami of emotion that still haunts me. I was stricken with sadness, grief, bliss (in the religious sense), and wonder.

Had I given up on the novel, I would have missed out on a wonderful story, the likes of which I have never read in Anglo literature.

I am pleased that organisations such as Japan Library and the Korean Library of Literature are bringing contemporary works from these countries to English readers. There is a long list of other contemporary Korean novels that I am sure are worth a look.

It is not so much that there is much difference in the lives of Korean towns (indeed, I often thought of similar experiences in places like Hong Kong), but the way the story unfolds. It edges towards suggestive at times, but is never lewd, it is close to grunge but not in a dark, Bukowskian (or even Carverian) way, it touches on poverty, but you never feel the characters lack anything.

The more I think about it, the lead up to the climax is all middle ground. There are no real humps or bumps, it just flows along like a three-year long journey. But when something brings the journey to an end, all is revealed in a matter of pages. 

It is like being lulled into a false sense of security that is suddenly pulled out from under you. Like a flash flood or an unexpected tsunami. This is a powerful story, and the second contemporary Korean novel I have read. There is much to be gained from reading outside of the Anglo-European tradition, and from what I have read so far, Korean literature is fast becoming a new favourite genre for me.