South Korean novelist Kang turns in a haunting, nervous story of dislocation and disorientation.
Rina is a pimply, disaffected teenage girl whose very name, composed of the Chinese characters meaning “clever” and “beautiful,” promises better things to come. Getting to them, however, means escaping a world of grim factories and barbed wire and making her way across an international border that, though close by, might as well lie on the other side of the world. Finally she departs, crossing hellish landscapes that go on forever, improbably embracing deserts and mountains, to say nothing of factories, brothels, and roads jammed with refugees. If she were to disappear with all those others in flight, Rina reflects, then “no one would even know we were here.” That is just so, though Rina may not be the most trustworthy of narrators to establish a true record of events; she’s never quite sure of where she is, and in any event the goal posts keep shifting in the game: “The country seemed to spread itself out viciously,” writes Kang, “so that no matter how far southwest they traveled, there was no end to it.” It’s possible and even tempting to read this as a story of divided Korea, but Kang, who puts Rina through every nightmare imaginable, including the constant threat of rape, seems to mean something more universal. In this sense, her fraught story of refugees in endless search of sanctuary resembles the work of the German postwar writer Wolfdietrich Schnurre; though Kang admits of the possibility of a happy ending, of finally crossing the border, the suggestion is strong that Rina will keep on moving toward it, “spread out like a blue levee before her,” forever. Discontinuous and sometimes daunting in its strangeness, Kang’s novel offers a postmodern commentary on globalism (“Cheapest is best whether it’s for products or for labor”) and totalitarianism. At times it’s a cousin of Pinocchio, but at others, it’s a Korean rejoinder to The Tin Drum.
Timely in an age of refugees and a welcome introduction to a writer worth knowing about.