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A window into Korean history

Jung Yun

THE WASHINGTON POST – Kyung-Sook Shin, one of South Korea’s most acclaimed novelists, is perhaps best known in the West for her international bestseller, Please Look After Mom.

The novel won the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, making Shin the first woman to receive the honour, and was published in 29 countries. Although three other novels have followed Please Look After Mom, her latest, I Went to See My Father – translated by Anton Hur – feels like its closest thematic counterpart in its exploration of guilt, regret, parenthood and filial piety in a changing South Korean culture.

The narrator of I Went to See My Father is a writer named Honnie who returns home to care for her elderly father while her mother seeks medical treatment in Seoul. Two years have passed since her last visit, a noticeable lapse caused by the death of Honnie’s young daughter, which has left her depressed, disengaged and unable to write productively.

Living with her father – referred to throughout the novel only as ‘Father’ – soon reveals all that Honnie missed during her absence, either because of her own inattention or her family’s attempts to conceal worrying details about his decline, which include memory lapses, insomnia and nocturnal wanderings. Noticeably, these symptoms also afflict the grief-stricken Honnie, and at times, it’s not clear which character needs the most caretaking. The present, however, is not the focus of this novel so much as the near and distant past, supporting Father’s claim that “Living isn’t always about going forward”.

As in Please Look After Mom, memories play an important role in the development of the novel’s main characters. After reading letters exchanged between Father and her eldest brother, Honnie realises that she never regarded her father – a farmer, occasional store manager and peripatetic labourer – “as an individual person in his own right”.

The unexpected discoveries she finds in these letters compel her to seek out more information about him. Through in-person meetings, letters, audio recordings and text messages, she solicits story after story from her siblings, her mother, friends of the family, and other relatives. Together, these memories come together to reveal a life upended by war and the early death of Father’s older brothers and parents, but still characterised by generosity, dreams and desire.

Much of Shin’s work explores the history of South Korea, and the impact its development has on individuals and the family unit. The characters in her books survive the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early half of the 20th Century and the Korean War in the 1950s, move from rural to urban communities in the 70s, and witness the political upheaval of South Korea’s nascent democracy in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

In Father, readers have an opportunity to meet a character whose lifetime includes all of these major periods. The result is a stark generational contrast between Honnie and her siblings, each of whom received college degrees and went on to steady professions, and their uneducated father, who endured numerous hardships from an early age.

The fact that Father can look back on his long life and still find moments of real human connection is a testament to his resilience, and perhaps the author’s nod to the resilience of South Koreans at large.

Fans of Please Look After Mom who are hoping to experience that novel’s many emotional highs and lows will likely notice that Shin’s newest book is steeped in an almost unvarying tone of sadness and grief. At times, the movements back and forth from past to present are jarring, and Honnie’s spiraling narration can occasionally challenge a reader’s patience with meandering, elliptical thoughts such as: “The more one tries not to think about something, the more one thinks about it. Just as the more one tries to forget, the more one remembers.

“If only not thinking was as easy as bidding oneself not to think, but the only way to not think about something is to think about it until there is nothing more to think about. Just like things are forgotten when it is their time to be forgotten.”

Those who can power through such moments will eventually be rewarded with quiet, tender exchanges between father and daughter, though readers seeking a brisk page turner should note that this is a slow and deeply interior novel, dense with memories that range from meaningful to mundane. Two sources of tension and intrigue – the cause of Honnie’s daughter’s death and the identity of a mysterious woman – are eventually addressed, but I Went to See My Father is not a novel of speed or dramatic revelations, only a gradual understanding of how the past has shaped these characters’ lives and brought them into the tenuous present.

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