‘Princess Bari’ by Hwang Sok-yong (Review)

IMG_5234With all the post-IFFP review copy catching up I’ve had to do recently, my journey into Korean fiction has been a little neglected.  However, I haven’t been ignoring K-Lit entirely, and today’s post sees the two areas (ARCs and Korean fiction) intersecting, in the shape of a book which has recently appeared here in Australia thanks to Scribe Publications.  It’s a very Korean tale, but the action carries us over the border and across the waves, leading reader and character alike to a very different life in the West…

Hwang Sok-yong’s Princess Bari (translated by Sora Kim-Russell, review copy courtesy of the publisher) tells the story of a girl born in the North Korean city of Chongjin in the mid 1980s.  The seventh consecutive daughter (in a society which values sons), she is abandoned by her mother shortly after her birth, only to be rescued by the family dog, Hindungi.  This miraculous escape brings a Korean myth to the mind of the baby’s grandmother, and the child is eventually named Bari after the tale’s heroine.

As Bari grows older, life in North Korea becomes ever harder, and the time eventually comes when the family is forced to flee in order to survive.  Having crossed the border into China, Bari sees her family and friends perish one by one, and she is compelled, like her mythical namesake, to embark on a long and frightening voyage, eventually ending up in London.  However, this is not the only thing she has in common with the shamanistic goddess of legend – you see, while her family may be gone, they’re far from forgotten…

Hwang Sok-yong is an excellent writer (see my reviews of The Guest, The Shadow of Arms and The Road to Sampo), and he used his own wanders into North Korea (for which he was imprisoned in the South) to flesh out that section of the book.  It’s an intriguing story, one that uses the outline of a folk tale to explore the modern world.  Despite this, it’s not just a Korean tale, but rather a more inclusive story of the sorrow affecting us all.

For many readers, the glimpses of life in the North will be an attraction.  Initially, Bari’s family are fairly comfortable, thanks largely to her father’s job in the import-export trade, and the friendship of a Chinese trader.  However, the fall of the Soviet Union and periods of heavy rain lead to famine and hardship – with food and assistance scarce, the hard times soon begin to bite:

“One day I was at the Tumen River with Mi when we saw something drifting downstream.  It was the body of a woman, floating face-down, with a baby on her back.  Mother and child had died together.”
p.41 (Scribe Publications, 2015)

Though Bari and her family aren’t quite as badly off as some, eventually the times start to affect  them too.  When the government comes after her father for offences committed by his brother-in-law, it’s time for everyone to start moving.

As interesting as this first part is, though, Princess Bari has a much wider scope.  The book is all about the displaced, with a variety of stories of refugees fleeing hardship.  In addition to the famine in North Korea, there are thugs in China and torturing bands in Africa – in fact, a whole world of pain.  When we get to London, Bari sees that she is just one of a whole host of people fleeing oppression, a single drop in the never-ending flood of people seeking freedom and peace.

While she takes her place amongst the other immigrants, Bari sees a lot more than most.  Having inherited the ‘gift’ from her grandmother, she uses her talents to give foot massages which do more than ease aching joints; they provide her with visions and a glimpse into people’s souls.  In her dreams, she continues her journey into the realm of the dead, acting as a messenger for the living:

“They say we’re here because of desire.  In our desire to live better than others, we are cruel to each other.  That’s why the god who rides that boat with you says he has also suffered.  By forgiving them, you help him.” (p.243)

Her massages and visits to the underworld bring hope to the people around her, but in an imperfect world, there’s only so much she can do.  Of course, Bari herself needs support at times – who’s going to help her?  It’s a good job that her grandmother and Chilsung, the seventh puppy from Hindungi’s litter, are able to keep an eye on her from the other side 😉

Based on a fairytale (of sorts), Princess Bari reads like one for the most part.  Kim-Russell’s translation imitates the simple, smooth style of a folk tale, with the horrific events Bari witnesses sailing by calmly.  In places, it’s a little too simple, especially in the sections before arriving in the UK, but when our heroine eventually reaches London, the story becomes more complex.  It’s here that Bari’s worldview expands; she meets people from all over the world and realises that while she and her family have had a hard life, they’re far from alone in their suffering.

Princess Bari is an entertaining story, easy to read and an interesting insight into Korean culture.  However, the later expansion of the story into a more global tale adds to the book’s quality.  Hwang is a man of the world (not your usual Korean writer), and his novel is an attempt to show us that skin colour is no barrier to, or protection against, pain and hardship:

“We stopped telling our stories in detail, but whenever the subject of our home countries came up, it always seemed to end in fighting and starvation and disease and brutal, fearful generals seizing power.  There were still so many people dying in every corner of the world, and people crossing endless borders in search of food, just so they could live without the constant threat of death.” (p.190)

Bari is a symbol of hope, but in a world like ours, hope isn’t always enough.  What Hwang is trying to show us, though, is that even if it can’t always make things right, it’s better to try to help each other than to give in to the darkness around us.  His wish for everyone is to find someone like Bari, a friend to help ease the pain of an unfair world…

3 thoughts on “‘Princess Bari’ by Hwang Sok-yong (Review)

  1. You’re right – what interests me most is the idea of getting a glimpse into life in North Korea, though there does seem to be much more to it than that. Does the link to the fairy tale genre help or hinder?


    1. Grant – The style allows Hwang to talk about violent events without the book getting too maudlin, which is a major achievement at times 😉 Funnily enough, while the parts in the North will be the major selling point for most people, it’s the parts set in London which are the most impressive.


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