“All trees are incarnations of frustrated love.” So avers this beguiling novel by the writer whom J.M. Clezio has called Korea’s most likely Nobel Prize contender.
Ki-hyeon is a lascivious and shallow young man. As Lee’s story opens, with a somewhat fusty term, he is negotiating with a “lady of the night,” one of his conditions being that she remove her makeup. He approves of her “voluptuous breasts,” and then again of her “voluptuous body and gigantic breasts,” and then—well, it doesn’t matter, because he is not procuring the hooker for himself but instead for his brother Woo-hyeon, having taken over that duty from his mother. Say what? Yes, said brother has lost both legs in a military accident and, with them, much of his will to live, though when a bright young singer named Soon-mee enters the picture, the brother, glad to be done with sex for hire, perks up. Soon enough, he and Soon-mee are addressing each other in gigglingly mythical terms, he calling her his “nymph” and she calling him her “beast.” Ki-hyeon falls in love with Soon-mee himself, though there’s a tangle with a brutal brother-in-law to sort out. If you’re confused, only a bit into the book, there are more conundrums to come. Some are served up by a taciturn father who doesn’t have much to say about human affairs but insists that plants are more worthy of love than most people—which may explain why Woo-hyeon winds up, in a dreamlike conclusion, borrowing a page from the Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne, “pray[ing] to be transformed into a tree.” But who is Apollo in the tale? Try to diagram the plot, and you might give yourself whiplash; at the very least, you’re likely to feel a little unmoored as the real world, such as it is, slips away into myth and dream.
Almost certainly the oddest love story you’ll have read in a long time. Think of Murakami drifting into the lands of Borges and Kafka, and you’ll have some of the feel of this strange, enchanting tale.