Paris, New York, and London: these are the world literary capitals that have historically attracted and nurtured aspiring artists, who in turn have mythologized such cities by lovingly evoking them in their work.1 literature.” The World Republic of Letters, translated by M. B. DeBevoise (Harvard University Press, 2004), pp. 24–30. ] But after so many repeat appearances in pages of fiction, have these literary metropoles somewhat lost their charisma? Novels that remain for the most part stationary in one of these cities—say, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009) or Zadie Smith’s NW (2012)—seem to compensate for the familiarity of their backdrops by stressing the diversity of their characters and narrative styles. Recent cosmopolitan novels, however, propose an alternative option: that of voyaging out from default settings to import novelty from literary hinterlands that had rarely, if ever, been charted in Anglophone fiction.
One country that has come on the literary radar in this way is Korea. Notable examples include the brilliantly dystopian neo-Seoul of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) and Chang-rae Lee’s graphic Korean War segments in The Surrendered (2011), a novel that stretches across China, America, and Italy over the course of several decades. Last year, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son placed an offbeat, fantastical Pyongyang alongside the more familiar spaces of Texas, Japan, and a fishing boat in the Pacific.
In Paul Yoon’s debut novel, Korea provides much more than a setting for an exotic narrative strand braided into a complex global novel.
Such novels with transnational aspirations allow for a relatively democratic representation of spaces around the world but could also be accused of engaging in a kind of light literary tourism. In Paul Yoon’s debut novel, however, Korea provides much more than a setting for an exotic narrative strand braided into a complex global novel, for Yoon foregrounds the nation’s somber history while bypassing North America and Western Europe altogether. Snow Hunters begins in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War, and memories of the war and the years leading up to it persistently follow the novel’s protagonist, a North Korean refugee named Yohan, even when he travels to the opposite side of the earth. Rather than repatriate to North Korea after the ceasefire in 1953, Yohan emigrates to Brazil, where he becomes an assistant to Kiyoshi, a Japanese tailor, and tries to ease himself into a civilian life of morning coffee, work, friendships, and intimacies. Vivid accounts of Yohan’s childhood and his later experiences as a combatant and POW are provided piecemeal in chapter-length flashbacks that interrupt the forward flow of the Brazil narrative. Instead of relying on the gruesome set pieces so characteristic of war novels, Yoon nudges the plot forward by asking how a man might resume life on new turf while beset by memories of death and loss.
The problem of mending lives ruptured by violence is no new subject matter for Yoon, whose stunning 2009 short story collection Once the Shore explored the same question in relation to national identity. The nine stories that constitute that collection all take place on a single imaginary Korean island but concern unrelated people who live in different times. There, the characters subtly connect through shared experiences—their damaged or torn limbs, their feelings of diminishment, or even their casual consumption of Korean snacks. Just as the characters are bound, without knowing it, by seemingly trivial things like their appetite for pungent slivers of squid, they are also powerfully connected by the historical traumas of colonization, war, national division, and ruthlessly rapid economic development.
Snow Hunters, on the other hand, contemplates the possibility of a sense of community among people separated by geographic distance rather than time—a more ambitious task, for it requires contemplating what can bring together people who share neither history, nor culture, nor nationality. Unlike in Once the Shore, where physical things (like the ubiquitous dried squid) could aid the construction of a shared identity, in Snow Hunters the materiality of objects threatens to obscure the intangible but no less valuable compassion nestled in such objects. Early on, Yohan collects or compulsively catalogs the objects he sees around him, as if to anchor himself physically or verbally with their presence: “Beyond the kitchen there was a door ajar, revealing the corner of a small room: a nightstand, the spine of a book, slippers, and an ashtray, the edge of a cot that reminded him of the field hospital in the camp, the gray light of the morning extending onto the floor.”
Yoon contemplates the possibility of a sense of community among people separated by geographic distance rather than time.
Such lackluster descriptions throw into sharp relief the novel’s more vivid illustrations, which appear more frequently when Yohan stops trying to name things. Upon seeing the local children climb a tree, Yohan becomes lyrical, noting how, “Their bodies circled the tree like planets as they went higher, blocking the afternoon light.” Later in the narrative, Yohan’s orphaned friend and fellow hoarder, Santi, declares in a tantrum that the objects that both Yohan and he collect are “all junk.” Yohan’s recovery begins as he looks beyond objects to the people who offer them: Bia, who gives her umbrella to Yohan on a rainy day; Kiyoshi, who silently tailors new clothes for Yohan.
Snow Hunters will probably not change the way you think about war novels, postwar recovery novels, contemporary novels, or the Korean War. Nor will it shock or pain, as do the stories of Once the Shore, for this is a gentler, more conventional, and ultimately happier book. Even Yoon’s clean style, which favors description of external objects and the use of conjunctions in close succession, might sound like something you’ve heard before (Yoon’s direct, terse sentences have been compared to those of Hemingway,2 and the lack of free indirect speech and the protagonist’s seemingly affectless reticence in facing violence recall aspects of Blood Meridian). Yet the merit of Snow Hunters goes well beyond its poetic cadences. A deeply sensitive work, it depicts the Korean War not as an abstract episode in world history but a national tragedy personally suffered, to be remembered, recounted, and gradually recovered from.