‘Pavane for a Dead Princess’ by Park Min-gyu (Review)

I haven’t quite finished the first ten books in Dalkey Archive PressLibrary of Korean Literature, but the next five in the series are already out, and I couldn’t resist trying one of the latest batch.  Number eleven is a contemporary story looking at modern Korean society and its obsession with superficiality – and for fans of Japanese literature, it might all seem oddly familiar…

Park Min-gyu’s Pavane for a Dead Princess (translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim, review copy courtesy of the publisher and the Australian distributor Footprint Books) has a writer looking back to the mid-eighties, a time when he arrived at the threshold of adulthood.  The opening scene is of a bus arriving in the snow, bringing the writer (and the reader) to a final, heart-warming meeting between two young lovers.

Moving back a year, we learn how the two met while working in the underground car park of a busy Seoul department store.  Both of them are eye-catching, but in very different ways.  The narrator is a young man who stands out, having inherited his father’s movie-star looks.  The girl?  She, as is made very clear, is totally, breath-takingly ugly…

Pavane for a Dead Princess is an easy, comforting read, a story chronicling the  development of a relationship against a back-drop of near hedonistic consumerism.  The two main characters, young people at odds with society, have arrived in the adult world without the appropriate social tools to survive and ignore outside pressure.  It’s hard to follow your own path when countless millions seem to be telling you that there’s only one way to go (and it’s not yours).

This is particularly true of mid-80s Seoul, a city seemingly attempting to fit decades of consumer development into a few months – this is truly the age of the commercial and the superficial:

“The world had laid down its judgement long ago.  It was an age where pretty trumped justice and pretty had the last word.  Nearly everything was determined at first sight, in terms of what school you went to, how much money you had, and how you stacked up in the eyes of others.  Glancing at the calendar on the wall, with its picture of a provocatively posing model practically demanding our attention, I poured my friend another glass.”
p.48 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2014)

Having worked hard, the Korean middle classes want to enjoy their gains, and shopping has become a national past-time.  In truth, though, they have been swept up in a race to buy more, spend more and become ‘better’, getting into debt in order to have the latest fashions.  It’s all seems more like hard work than real leisure.

The narrator, his girl-friend and their friend Yohan stick out in this sea of consumerism, all misfits in their own way.  The narrator is a budding writer, a school drop-out recovering from the break-up of his parents’ marriage (his actor father dumped the narrator’s plain mother once he hit the big time…).  Yohan is the foil to the introverted narrator – he’s clever and witty, and he helps his friend to cope with the daily grind.  However, underneath his affable exterior, there’s a palpable sense of darkness waiting to emerge.

The boys’ issues, however, are nothing when compared to the girl’s problems.  Her appearance prevents her from living a normal life (and the writer makes sure that we understand how big a problem this is).  Whenever she walks down the street, people gape at her, unable to quite believe what they’re seeing, and most turn away rather than keep looking at her.  Her looks prevent her from getting, and keeping, decent jobs; understandably, she sees her appearance as an affliction:

“Some people might point to handicapped people and tell me things can be much worse.  I’m aware there are many people who are in pain.  But, although I know this will sound shameless and selfish, there were many times when I envied those people.  At least the world recognizes their handicaps for handicaps.  The world never accepted my darkness as a handicap, yet everyone treated me as such.  My handicap was never recognized as one, although, while I don’t want to admit it, it was the world that had crippled me.  I had to go to the same school and wear the same clothes as other kids, but I was always treated differently.  I had no choice but to live this life.  That was my fate.
  Ugly.” (p.179)

The writer later contrasts her situation with fleeting portraits of pretty girls.  Unlike the narrator’s girlfriend, theirs is an easy life, life pandered to by a safety net of admirers.  Coincidentally, I was reading this book when the Renée Zellweger ‘controversy’ erupted – a sobering reminder that it’s not just 80s Korea that had a fixation on beauty…

Pavane for a Dead Princess is a touching love story (with a twist…) and a scathing indictment of modern society.  It’s a compelling tale, and if the themes and style sound familiar, they cetainly are.  You see, there’s more than a touch of the Murakamis about this one with the Japanese writer being a very obvious influence on Park.  In fact, some of the writing is very reminiscent of Haruki’s idiosyncratic style:

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
  Her voice was tiny, but it unsettled me.  Why was she sorry?  She began to cry to my utter confusion.  The thought crossed my mind that maybe twenty-year-old guys are like AM radios.  We can turn the knob all we want, but we’ll never receive that elusive signal called woman.  I sat there blank as a dead radio, facing her tears.  I felt I’d done something very wrong. (p.8)

That’s a passage which could have come straight out of  A Wild Sheep Chase or Dance, Dance, Dance…  The scenes of the three friends at the run-down bar, ‘Kentucky Chicken’, will instantly have Murakami fans thinking of the many nights Boku and the Rat spend at J’s Bar, and there are constant mentions of pop music and reading books in public places.  Yes, if you wait long enough, there’s also a cat 😉

Even the title is unmistakably Murakamiesque.  It refers to a piece of classical music, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, music from an LP given to the narrator by his girlfriend on their last night together (a melancholic piano piece).  If only Park had Murakami’s sales, I’m sure it would soon be as frequently searched for on Youtube as the Liszt pieces from Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s The Thieving Magpie!

Park is a lot more than just a Murakami clone, though.  Pavane for a Dead Princess is a straight-forward, but fascinating story, a book I flew through.  I’ve had some issues with the translations in this series, but this one was generally good, and I found it easy to remain absorbed in the story, eager to keep turning the pages.  I’d probably still recommend Jang Eun-jin’s No One Writes Back as the standout of the ones I’ve read, but this one is definitely up there with the best.  Now, if the other four new additions to the series are this good, I’d be very happy to try them.  It might be a while before I finish off the last couple from the original ten 😉

Footprint Books, as always, assure me that this book is available in Australia, either at bookshops or through their website 🙂

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