‘Arpan’ by Park Hyoung-su (Review)

With the year fast drawing to a close, there’s just enough time to fit in one virtual trip to Korea before the clock strikes twelve.  Today we’re looking at the second book from the Asia Publishers K-Fiction series, and where Dinner with Buffett examined capitalism in the big city, this one is a little more exotic in its themes…

Park Hyoung-su’s Arpan (translated by Sora Kim-Russell, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a story about a story, an examination of what it means to be a writer and how closely what we write is linked to all that has come before.  The narrator is a Korean writer helping to organise a third-world writers festival in Seoul, an undertaking which is not quite as altruistic as it may appear.

In his youth, the writer spent time with the Waka people on the Thai-Burmese border, and during his time abroad, he encountered Arpan, the only writer of a tribe with an oral culture.  Helping out with the festival, then, is merely a means for getting the affable storyteller to visit Seoul, his first trip away from his mountain home.  In reality, though, while the narrator is happy to see Arpan again, the reason for the invitation has little to do with the festival – our friend has a secret, and the time has come for it to be told…

Arpan is another excellent story from the K-Fiction range, a piece which has as one of its focuses the preservation of minority cultures and languages.  Park examines what it means to preserve a culture, asking whether the idea is even possible.  Whereas no change means it is doomed to extinction, too much outside influence will inevitably lead to a dilution of traditions and perhaps total assimilation.  It’s a fine line to tread, and keeping the balance is often impossible.

The reader is shown an example of a minority culture in the figure of Arpan, a member of the Waka (a tall people from the mountains).  In the Waka culture, height has a heightened(!) significance, with size or volume less important than how high items can be stacked.  You can imagine the impression the lofty skyscrapers of Seoul make on a man who lives in a small settlement of rude huts.

At the festival itself, the man from the mountains is even more out of place.  There’s a clash of cultures, with the audience laughing silently at Arpan, looking down on a man much bigger (in many ways) than they are.  While the narrator despises the people in the room, he has his own confused relationship with the visitor:

“I cared more about Arpan than anyone else in the world.  Still, I couldn’t deny the fact that lurking on the other side of that love was an indefinable hatred.  Maybe it was similar to the hatred that later generations feel towards an unconquerable original.”
p.21 (Asia Publishers, 2014)

The truth is that the writer is no different to the audience – as we are to discover.

The second main theme concerns the idea of inspiration, being part of a literary tradition, and the temptation of crossing the border into plagiarism.  When the writer finally sits Arpan down to reveal the secret he’s been keeping, he gives an example of a song evolving across countries and centuries:

“The human arts have never once been pure.  Every act of creation we undertake is footnoted and amended with respect to an existing point of view.  It builds up layer by layer.” (p.65)

It’s an interesting idea, and possibly true – but (to lean on literary tradition myself) methinks the writer doth protest too much…

As the writer sits down opposite his imposing visitor, the reader is confronted with a question: which is more important, the writer or the story?  The way Arpan ends seems to answer the question decisively.  The truth, though, is that no matter how ingenious his justifications are, the writer will always wonder whether he’s done the right thing… 

Arpan is an excellent, thought-provoking story, enhanced (as the Asia Publishers books always are) by the added extras.  The inclusions this time are especially good as we are treated to the writer’s own views on the story, in which he explains what he was trying to achieve. It also features an excellent translation by Sora Kim-Russell (translator of, amongst other works, Shin Kyung-sook’s I’ll Be Right There).  In fact, both the books in this series that I’ve read so far have been far better in this regard than those in the Bilingual series – a welcome sign that the standard of translation is getting better and better.

If you’re new to K-Lit, and hesitant to dive into the longer (and more culturally-loaded) seminal works, the K-Fiction series looks like a nice place to start – particularly if you’re keen on the idea of having a bilingual version.  For those of you outside Korea (i.e. almost everyone…), the whole set is available on Amazon, and buying all five would probably be the cheapest way to get hold of them.  I’ve got one more to look at – hopefully I’ll be writing more about this series very soon 🙂

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