‘Dinner with Buffett’ by Park Min-gyu (Review)

Regular readers may have heard of Asia Publishers through my reviews of a couple of their Modern Korean Literature Bilingual Edition books (I Live in Bongcheon-dong, The Road to Sampo), but they recently added a new series to their collection.  Where the first series focused on some of the older writers on the Korean scene, the recently announced K-Fiction Series looks at stories by the next generation – and the first one I looked at was by a writer whose name is rather familiar 🙂

Park Min-gyu’s Dinner with Buffett (translated by Jeon Sung-hee, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a story featuring American finance guru Warren Buffett, an endearingly bizarre tale which looks at a day in the life of the wizard of the stock market, one he’s unlikely to forget in a hurry.  After a meeting with the American President in which they discuss peculiar developments, he rushes back to New York for dinner with the winner of a charity auction.

You’d expect a man who’s shelled out big bucks to eat with Buffett to be eager to get some insights into his financial dealings.  In fact, the winner, a young Korean man, just seems happy to share dinner with the great man, with no ulterior motive.  Something’s not quite right here…

My last look at Park’s work was the excellent Pavane for a Dead Princess, and this is another wonderful piece.  The story takes a look at the contemporary world and wonders if there’s an alternative to the soulless neoliberal state we find ourselves in.  The reason Buffett has been summoned to Washington is that the President has become aware of a threat (one the reader is not entirely privy to) – all we know is that ‘they’ are coming, and that their values are very different to those the two men share.

It seems a rather unusual threat, but for people like Buffett this is scarier than any alien invasion, the idea of money having little value.  On the plane back, he reminisces about his beginnings, a time which may be about to fade into history:

“He thought that people were like sailors on a ship, sailing across time itself, and that he had been living in the great age of investment.  That age was not yet over.  But he also wondered if he was perhaps still carrying out the business of the past century, the sweet flavor of which had already vanished.  He was still chewing his gum.”
pp.19/21 (Asia Publishers, 2014)

Little does he know that his first encounter with ‘them’ is just around the corner…

Ahn, the winning bidder for the meal, is not the kind of person Buffett was expecting, and the dinner doesn’t exactly run as he would have expected either.  The winning bid is a six-figure sum, but when we find out where it came from, the great financier isn’t the only one to get a surprise.  With Ahn seemingly uninterested in pumping Buffett for financial knowledge, it all seems a waste…  Why did he come to the dinner?  Is he happy with the choices he’s made?

“I’m fine thanks,”
And then,
“And you?” (p.67)

It’s a question that Buffett might need some time to ponder.

Dinner with Buffett is a rather topical story (the traffic jam Buffett runs into on the way to dinner is caused by Occupy protests); in a post-GFC climate, it’s a story looking at a possible post-capitalist ideology.  The idea is that if enough people turn their backs on chasing the dollar, great things could happen – the way to shake bankers from their complacency is to simply ignore them…  It’s an intriguing idea, although I’m not sure quite how feasible it is.  What’s certain is that this is a wonderful story, with Jeong Sung-hee’s translation bringing the deceptively casual tone across nicely.  Definitely a piece that makes you wonder if it really is that easy to change the world…

The new K-Fiction series has kicked off with five stories by young writers.  It has the same format as the Modern Korean Fiction series, with the text in both Korean and English, plus an analysis at the end of the book (the only difference is that the covers are more colourful!).  If you’re interested in the rest of the series, all five have already been reviewed over at Korean Literature in Translation.  I have another two to read and review, so I’m sure you’ll be seeing more about them over here at some point too.

But wait – there’s more…  In Seoul, on the 13th of December, there’s an opportunity to meet all five authors at a special event.  You can check out this link for all the details – including the fact that it’s free!  This is an excellent chance to get up close and personal with some of the rising stars of K-Lit, so congratulations to Asia Publishers, Barry Welsh and Charles Montgomery for getting the show on the road.

When you add this kind of event to the great things the Literature Translation Institute of Korea has been doing recently, you can see that this is an exciting time for Korean literature in translation.  If any of this sounds like your kind of thing, why not get on board?  I’m sure 2015 is going to be just as big as this year has been, with lots of exciting events in store – stay tuned for details 😉

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