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Wanderlust Review: Metafictional Murder in South Korea

  • By Alex Duffy
  • 4th September 2017
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How translated works push the boundaries with language and form | The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo | Translated by Janet Hong | Reviewed by Alex Duffy, English Literature Work Placement

Ahead of this year’s upcoming International Translation Day at The British Library, last July saw a special Wanderlust event take place at Free Word.

Exploring the ways in which translated works push boundaries with form and language, Han Yujoo gave us insight into her haunting debut novel The Impossible Fairy Tale. The discussion was chaired by literary critic and founder of Review 31, Houman Barekat, with support from Tilted Axis founder and Man Booker Prize winner Deborah Smith (The Vegetarian).

Everyday violence, as seen first-hand by the author in South Korea’s capital, appears to dominate the novel, painting a clear picture of why South Korea is often referred to as ‘Hell Joseon’. The violence within the novel takes place in the protagonist’s school playground – children pull wings off butterflies, murder chicks and catapult their carcasses – conveying the presence of violence even at a low level.

The author strips the protagonist of an identity by naming her ‘the Child’, further dehumanising her against the novel’s violent backdrop and creating an impersonal relationship between her and the reader. The reader is aware that the Child is abused by her mother, yet this is not part of the direct narrative, making the reader feel uneasily disconnected to that part of the story. The Child, unnamed and overlooked, writes about her experience of abuse in a diary, communicating in written form the things she’s unable to say aloud. The author believes that it is important for children to have their own voice, ‘even if it’s in a code that only they can understand.’

Han Yujoo followed this by reading a passage from the novel in Korean. The rhythm, created through repetition in the language, was prominent, and both beautiful and transfixing to an audience of people largely unable understand a single word. There is something enchanting about listening to someone read in a language foreign to yours, especially when the structure is unusual. Since the words carry no meaning to foreign ears, the rhythm becomes even more crucial. Barekat noted that the novel’s language and short sentences are ‘as you would expect in a children’s story’ – the author successfully conveying the voice of the Child through the narration.

The use of wordplay was mentioned frequently at the Wanderlust event. Translator, Janet Hong, who was video-projected into the Free Word theatre from Canada, spoke about the transition of words and how she adapted them during the novel’s translation process. She discussed the difficulty of retaining multiple layers of meaning whilst preserving the logic the author uses to move from one word to the next. Touching on the significance of the meaning behind words, Hong noted the fine line between pleasant and unpleasant words. Used in a different context, a pleasant word like “sprinkles” in the example she gives, goes from being a cute nickname for a cat to the unsettling revelation of its murder. This was a particularly impactful moment during the event, met by a large round of applause from the audience in Janet’s absence. You can watch the full video below.

What strikes many readers most about Han Yujoo’s novel, unsurprisingly, is the structure and form. As the title of the event suggests, it falls into the category of metafiction. The author comments on the tragedy of what has happened by placing herself in the novel as a teacher who wakes up from an intense dream with knowledge of the first half of the novel, having taken place years earlier. Barekat notes that in this way, The Impossible Fairy Tale is like two novels in one – both a story in its own right, and a brilliant experimentation of language and form.

For the innovative way it plays with the structure of language, The Impossible Fairytale is a unique work of art. A strong debut from one of South Korea’s most exciting young voices.

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