Stories about refugees are fairly topical given the current state of the world, but not all those escaping hardship in their own country intend to make a home in the US or Western Europe. Those fleeing North Korea, for example, often intend to settle in the south, but with the border between the two warring states impassable, the only way out is via a lengthy detour full of risks – and today’s book, even if it doesn’t mention the countries by name, shows that for a woman making this trip, the dangers are even more severe…
Kang Young-sook’s Rina (translated by Kim Boram, electronic review copy courtesy of Dalkey Archive Press) begins with twenty-two escapees hoping to cross the border of their poverty-stricken country. As nervous as they are, this is merely the first crossing of several on their arduous journey towards the country of P, and there are days (possibly weeks) of travel before they reach their destination. One of the group is a teenage girl, Rina, and the story focuses on her as she struggles to keep up with her family and fellow villagers (wishing she had more suitable shoes for the trek).
While the first part of the trip goes relatively smoothly, if uncomfortably, Rina is one of a small group who are caught near their second border, subsequently forced to work as slave labour at a chemical plant. Rina, however, turns out to be fairly resilient, and won’t let a little thing like kidnapping stop her. Yet as she moves closer towards her supposed destination, the young woman wonders whether she really wants to reach P., meaning her story is set to turn in a completely different direction.
One of the most recent Library of Korean Literature titles, Rina is less the story of one woman than a book describing the difficulties faced by those who want to seek a better life elsewhere. However, even if she is more of a symbol than a person, she certainly stands out with her will to survive and a talent for making the most of bad situations. Near the start of the novel, we are told that the characters making up her name mean ‘clever’ and ‘beautiful’; what we see over the course of the book leads us to consider her name well chosen.
The story begins in the midst of the first crossing, and Kang provides the reader with a sobering picture of a mass silent flight:
The river was crawling with processions of people fleeing the country. No one spoke, no one asked what route you had taken to cross the border, or what your reasons were for fleeing. The night was filled with shadows and the sound of legs slicing through water.
p.13 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2015)
As Rina and her companions progress on foot, by bus or by train, there’s a strong temptation to try to map the journey, even though (initially, at least) no place names are actually mentioned. It’s fairly clear that the refugees are modelled on North Koreans attempting to make it to the south, and much of the second half of the novel takes place in a country suspiciously reminiscent of China, with Rina caught in the middle of an impending environmental disaster (a section with echoes of the pointless destruction described in Yan Lianke’s The Four Books).
While the refugees are desperate to arrive in the fabled land of P., Rina is far more about the journey than the destination. A clear picture is given of the hardships faced, of which the long walks and endless bus and train journeys are only the start. The refugees lack food and water, meaning that when they do manage to eat, their stomachs are unable to cope (with inevitable, messy consequences…). On top of this hunger, filth and exhaustion, the weary travellers must keep their wits about them when dealing with guides and corrupt border officials. Even when the money has been paid, betrayal is always a possibility…
Of course, that’s not the worst of their problems. Death is, unfortunately, the migrants’ most faithful and constant companion, and when this is the case, attitudes towards life can become rather jaded. With each setback, Rina becomes ever more hard-bitten, and rather than developing, or growing up, she decides to focus on what she can get out of the present moment, usually financially. This means that the story doesn’t so much progress as simply move on to a new location, with each stop a seeming repetition of the last. Sometimes things go better, sometimes worse, but there’s little to look forward to long term.
If death makes frequent appearances, so too does sex, and while Rina begins the novel as an innocent teenager, the reality of the refugee existence means that this situation was never likely to last. First, she has men force themselves upon her, before being tricked into crossing the border for a life of prostitution. Yet with the passing of time, she appears to come to terms with the situation, accepting that using her body is probably her best bet of lifting herself out of poverty. Ironically, the one person who doesn’t force himself on her is Pii, a youth she meets on her journey, and with whom she enters into an uncertain relationship. The two follow each other across borders, never really together, but circling around each other, each reflecting the other’s growth – or perhaps ‘transformation’ would be a better word. It’s not really clear that these changes we see are for the better.
Rina is interesting in parts, especially in the first half, yet in truth this was a book I found hard to like. The writing was fairly dull, and while it’s tempting to put this on Kim (#blamethetranslator), it’s more a case of some rather flat prose (and the fact that the story peters out a little) than any really terrible writing. So Young Hyun’s ‘Critical Commentary’, however, provides a rather different view. In a very convoluted way, it attempts to talk the story up, painting Kang as a master of postmodernism:
By breaking free of the epistemological boundaries of meaningful and un-meaningful to strip away meaning itself, this deferral of judgement is tantamount to a Derridean encapsulation of textual reality, and it contains a postmodern destructuralizing move that annihilates the value hierarchy between inside and outside. (p.246)
Of course it does…
Rina will appeal to readers interested in the issues of asylum seekers and the struggles of women in the developing world, and it’s an appropriate choice for Women in Translation Month. All refugees have stories to tell, but women’s tales aren’t always heard:
Today’s story is the story of a girl who crossed a border into your country and is now twenty-four.
The lower part of this globe is filled with poor women. You say there are poor women everywhere? Hold on, even if you have something to say. Right now, it’s my turn to speak. (p.67)
Perhaps Kang’s true intention is to use Rina as a symbol of all those who are trying to find a safe place. In a dangerous world, she’s the voice of those who have none of their own…
#WITMonth Bonus Shot – Number 5
Welcome to the fifth of my #WITMonth Bonus Shot features, in which I suggest some further reading ideas connected to the post (and country) of the day – links, where applicable, are to my reviews 🙂
Regular readers will know that K-Lit has been a regular part of my diet over the past couple of years, and there’s no shortage of female writers whose work has made it into English. We’d have to start, of course, with Han Kang, whose Man Booker International Prize winner The Vegetarian has given translated literature a real boost (even if I actually prefer her follow up in English, Human Acts!). Another big new name is Bae Suah. Last year saw the digital release of two of her novellas (Highway with Green Apples and Nowhere to Be Found), but look out for another couple of imminent publications in English: A Greater Music (from Open Letter) and Recitation (from Deep Vellum).
Those aren’t the only female Korean writers whose work I’ve enjoyed, though. Two of the biggest names in K-Lit are O Chong-hui and Ch’oe Yun, and I’d recommend the two books Columbia University Press put out a while back (River of Fire and Other Stories and There a Petal Silently Falls) to get a taste for their fiction. Yang Gui-ja also impressed me with A Distant and Beautiful Place and Contradictions, while Jang Eun-jin’s No One Writes Back was perhaps the highlight of the first ten books from the Library of Korean Literature, and certainly the one to recommend to the general reader.
Although I haven’t enjoyed everything I’ve read, it would still be remiss of me not to mention a couple of the better-known female writers from Korean. Park Wan-suh was a very popular writer, and even if her work isn’t to my taste, she has a lot of fans. As for Shin Kyung-sook, well, let’s just say I wasn’t enamoured with Please Look After Mother/Mom and leave it there 😉 However, I did enjoy I’ll Be Right There, so not all hope is lost…
That’s already a fair bit to be getting on with, but let me just give you one more tip. I recently reviewed The Future of Silence – Fiction by Korean Women. Edited and translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, the nine stories collected here make for a perfect introduction to female-written K-Lit, past and present 🙂