An extraordinarily rich and moving novel about a young man’s journey through South Korea with his dog
A young man, Jihun, travels through a series of nameless cities in Korea with his dog, Wajo, staying at motels every night. At each one he writes a letter to someone he has met on his travels, or to a member of his family. He then writes on the underside of the room’s sink a brief record of his stay there, and moves on to another motel. Sometimes the motel will refuse to accept dogs; to get round this, he puts on dark glasses and pretends to be blind, saying Wajo is his guide dog. (In truth, it is the dog who is blind.) He does not refer to the people he meets by name, but instead assigns them a number. When the novel begins, he is up to 750. Then, on the subway one day (the book has been translated into American, not English, but this adds to the atmosphere), he meets a woman selling a novel called Toothpaste and Soap to commuters. At the time he is pretending to be blind, but the woman has seen through the imposture, and starts travelling with him. She is never named but becomes known as 751.
I know nothing about Korean culture. I have even managed to avoid the video for “Gangnam Style“. So for all I know, the kind of things that go on in No One Writes Back happen all the time in Korea. Congratulations are due in any case to Dalkey Archive, who are publishing a series of Korean novels, for going even further than they normally do in bringing us the fruits of other people’s culture. (We are talking South Korea, of course.) Still, it was with more of a sense of duty than pleasure that I started reading this book. I imagine it was how John Peel might have felt sometimes, putting another cassette handed to him by a desperate band member into the tape machine on the long drive home after a gig.
Yet sometimes the duty quickly becomes a pleasure. This is an extraordinarily rich and moving novel, which could happily garner a very wide audience. The story it tells is not specifically Korean, or not to the point where we might feel confused. It’s urban, universally so: a story of alienation told in a manner that does not feel sorry for itself, but goes about its business in an odd but determined way. At one point the narrator tries to hang himself by his own shoelaces, but is saved by his dog. “I put the shoelaces, which had choked my neck, back on my sneakers, and left the motel the next day. What I was wearing were not sneakers, but a pair of deaths. Whenever the thought occurred to me that two deaths were weighing down on my feet, I felt a desire to walk more, and with each step I took, I seemed to move further and further away from death.”
Jihun, you will have worked out by this time, is a rather odd person, but after a while you discover that this is not a willed oddity on the novelist’s part, but the result of a specific series of events. One of the reasons the book will touch a nerve is that it answers to our contemporary sense of displacement: it makes the case for the solidities of the past – mailboxes, letters, phone boxes – over emails and mobiles, but without ever being prissy about them. Nowhere is the word “autism” mentioned, but in Jihun’s rituals and patterns of behaviour we see how familiar actions can reconcile us to a condition of permanent loss. It draws us to him.
Jang Eun-Jin has a very good way of releasing devastating snippets of information at strategic points; by the time you get to the end of the novel, you might find yourself wondering if Jihun’s behaviour is actually odd enough. The book also has that pleasingly spooky sense of folding in on itself: the female novelist he meets on the subway may very well be the writer of this book. No One Writes Back has the trappings of the avant garde – the carefully affectless style, the way it is told in numbered paragraphs – but in terms of the emotional impact it delivers, it is, in its way, as sentimental as The Old Curiosity Shop. All I can say, in a rather dazed fashion, is read it – you’ll love it.
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663875/s/33dbd120/sc/38/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Cbooks0C20A130Cnov0C190Cno0Eone0Ewrites0Eback0Ejang0Eeun0Ejin0Ereview/story01.htm