‘The Impossible Fairytale’ by Han Yujoo (Review)

With the MBIP reading finished (for now), I can turn my attention to other books, and unsurprisingly my first choice takes me back to Korea, for the first novel in English by a young writer with a big reputation.  Today’s book takes us back to childhood, showing us that life is rarely fair, but there’s far more to the story than that.  You see, this is a novel where the author is forced to justify her choices, and not just to the reader…

*****
Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairytale (translated by Janet Hong, electronic review copy courtesy of Tilted Axis Press) takes us back to 1998, introducing Mia, a fairly normal twelve-year-old girl.  While her family situation is a little unusual (she lives with her mother, but has two fathers, or men who both believe they are the father), she goes about her days happily enough, persuading the men in her life to buy her crayons, sweaters and even a bicycle.  At school, she sits with her best friend Inju and chats about life and the other children in the class.

One of those classmates, a girl hidden in the shadows, is introduced to us simply as the Child, with the writer working hard to avoid giving away her name.  She immediately brings a darker tone to the novel, with hints that her home life isn’t as calm and peaceful as Mia’s:

Nothing happens today.  Not yet.  When evening comes, she will be left alone at home.  Then she will be able to breathe easy.  But until then she must hide.  She goes into her room, with her head bowed.  But she must not bow her head too much, or raise her head too much.  She must not tread too heavily, or too lightly.  She must not draw too much attention; she must draw a moderate amount of attention.
(Tilted Axis Press, 2017)

Gradually, Mia begins to notice the Child, and her friendly nature compels her to reach out and help.  However, unlike the reader, she hasn’t seen what the Child is capable of and is unaware that there’s a dark side to her new friend that could place Mia’s life in danger.

The title of Han’s novel is certainly apt, but if you’re looking for a Disney-style fairytale, you’re in the wrong place.  This is very much a Grimm tale, with a story steeped in darkness and blood, and the mysterious Child is at the centre of it all.  Initially, she’s a character begging for our sympathy; we never see any abuse described, but she constantly thinks about what might happen, or what has happened, and most scenes in the classroom linger on details, scars poking up above the collar of her shirt, or the gentle trickle of blood slowly making its way down from her nose.  Eventually, though, we see more of what makes her tick.  She has an obsession with knives, perhaps wanting to take the focus away from her own pain by concentrating it outwards, onto another target (or victim), and one of the major plot strands sees her break into her classroom to read her classmates’ journals (and add a few thoughts of her own).

You’d be forgiven at this point for relaxing into the story, seeing it as a character study of a child corrupted by her upbringing, a sad tale of young lives cut short, and there’s a lot to that, with the cruel nature of kids in the classroom explored in detail (particularly with the introduction of Injung, a mentally disabled boy ‘parked’ in their class until a more suitable school can be found).  There are several mentions of the children buying chicks from old women outside the school gates, and the fate that the poor innocent creatures face, and despite Mia’s happy demeanour, the writer makes no secret of the fact that all this could change very quickly, foreshadowing darker times ahead in several passages.

However, Han suddenly pulls the rug from under the reader’s feet, whisking them away from the narrative to a series of confusing chapters which eventually coalesce into the thoughts of a writer, the writer, who is wondering how (even whether) to finish the story.  As we move from a series of bewildering dreams into the writer’s actual daily existence (teaching a literature class, walking back to her apartment), this second part of the novel is slowly linked to the narrative we believed was the main idea.  It’s here that the impossible part of the title comes into play, as the writer faces up to a visitor she never thought she’d meet…

The Impossible Fairytale certainly won’t be for everyone.  There are several places in the novel where the reader must have faith in Han and trust that there’s a reason for the detours she’s taking, some of which can be lengthy and confusing.  It’s also likely that some readers will be put off by the style, with a lot of repetition, simple language and many examples of extended wordplay that doesn’t always come across as naturally in English as I suspect it’s supposed to:

The nag that had been passing me nags, That dog was dried out.  What the nag just nagged is probably wrong.  Dogs don’t dry out.  Drying out can’t be a dog’s trait.  The nag nags again, Then is it you who’s dried out?

My only previous encounter with Han’s work was a short story (‘I Ain’t Necessarily So’) in the collection The Future of Silence, full of similar linguistic experiments, and it wasn’t exactly one of my favourites pieces in the book.  Some parts of The Impossible Fairytale share this obsession with childish punning, and it can try your patience at times.***

Yet for those who are prepared to persist, there’s a logic holding the story together, even in the strangest dream sequences.  The first part has the narrator at a distance, examining the characters like specimens in a lab and describing their actions dispassionately, pushing the characters away partly through the use of the repetitive, childlike language:

The cold Child is cold.  The cold Child sheds blood.  The cold blood is cold.  Only statements that repeat the same words are good.  Expressions that betray no meaning.  Meaning that keeps coming back.  Expressions that carry no other meaning.

Here the language works well, with the constant repetition and circling back around (reminiscent at times of fellow Korean writer Jung Young Moon’s style, albeit a little simpler), gradually adding layer upon layer to the depth of the Child’s emotions.  After playing with us (You all assumed the story I told you was completely true, or at least partly true.  Such is the power of story.), though, the writer is forced by the new arrival to face up to her responsibility towards her creation.  This is no longer just a story, but real life, with the author having to reflect on what she wrote and why, under the cool gaze of the visitor.  Having pushed the Child towards her actions, the writer must now carry on and show us all a resolution to the tale.

A two-part novel featuring a chilling tale of the consequences of neglect, followed by a meta-fictional encounter between writer and character, The Impossible Fairytale shows that there’s more than one way to tell a story.  I’m not convinced that Han is destined to enjoy the kind of success achieved by Han Kang (or even Bae Suah), and this one isn’t nearly as accessible as the previous Korean release from Tilted Axis (Hwang Jungeun’s One Hundred Shadows).  However, she’s certainly a fascinating writer in her own right, and anyone who enjoys a slightly darker, twisted style of writing may get a lot from this novel.  No, it’s unlikely to be picked up by Richard and Judy, but that’s not really what Tilted Axis are about.  This is another example of why we need small presses like them to search out rough diamonds we’d otherwise never have heard about.

***  UPDATE: 12/5/17

I thought it would be nice to add a comment Paul Fulcher made to the main review (with his approval) as it gives further examples of the interesting use of language discussed above:

“To give another example:
Forgotten words and lost words turn to bricks and are trapped inside the mouth. Brick pencil and brick fountain pen fall to the brick ground. Brick words and brick sentences fall to the brick ground. Brick world doesn’t collapse. Brick world doesn’t expand. Brick you become a brick and the brick hour stops. Brick I open my brick eyes and look at brick you.

What name should I call you? After I write here, I close my brick eyes and spew out brick breath. (pp.337/8)

Korean original:

잊어버린 말과 잃어버린 말이 벽돌이 되어 벽돌 입안에 갇힌다. 벽돌 연필과 벽돌 만년필이 벽돌 바닥으로 추락한다. 벽돌 단어와 벽돌 문장 들이 벽돌 바닥으로 추락한다. 벽돌 세계가 무너지지 않는다. 벽돌 세계가 팽창하지 않는다. 벽돌 네가 그대로 벽돌이 되어 벽돌 시간이 정지한다. 벽돌 내가 벽돌 눈을 뜨고 벽돌 너를 바라본다.
….
나는 너를 어떤 이름으로 불러야 할까. 여기가지 쓰고 난 뒤 나는 벽돌 눈을 감고 벽돌 숨을 내뱉는다. (p.295)

It looks like a very literal translation. Whether it reads better in the Korean is difficult for me to say. But one point is that the lack of pronouns (“Brick pencil and brick fountain pen” rather than “A/the brick pencil and a/the brick fountain pen”) is natural in Korean and artificial/contrived in English.”

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22 thoughts on “‘The Impossible Fairytale’ by Han Yujoo (Review)

  1. Plan to read this in the next week or so – so will revisit your review and compare thoughts when I do.

    The translator’s introduction was interesting describing how she wrestled with the puns and world play.

    Like

      1. The example she gives is

        “The kitten looks up at the Child with pretty eyes as though it has no idea why the Child has snatched her hand away. Kitty cat, kitty cat. Kit Kat, kat. What does kat mean? Or kit? Tool kit. Tools hurt. Hammer, screwdriver, wrench.”

        The Korean original is a riff on 고양이 (cat) to 고양 (boost/flight/sacrificial lamb) 야공 (night
        assault) 야구공 (a baseball) to 공구 (tool).

        She observes that preserving the different elements made no sense in English so she started with cat (or kitten) and ended with tools, to preserve the join with the previous and later sentences but otherwise made up her own word association.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The best meta-fictional thing I”ve read translated from Korean.. The “crime” the Child engages in is also cleverly tied into the idea of words, their impermanence, and who can control them…

    Definitely worth reading..

    Like

    1. Charles – Very true, and something I didn’t manage to work into my review was the central idea of erasing things, whether they be words, stains or people 😉

      Like

    1. Kim – Well, yes, but does it read well? That’s of more concern here, and I’m not entirely sure this wordplay really comes cross well into English… The rest of the book reads well, though.

      Like

        1. Paul – Ah, yes, mustn’t assume that the translator’s responsible for anything that sounds a bit off in the English version 😉

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          1. To give another example

            (page 337-8 towards end)
            Forgotten words and lost words turn to bricks and are trapped inside the mouth. Brick pencil and brick fountain pen fall to the brick ground. Brick words and brick sentences fall to the brick ground. Brick world doesn’t collapse. Brick world doesn’t expand. Brick you become a brick and the brick hour stops. Brick I open my brick eyes and look at brick you.

            What name should I call you? After I write here, I close my brick eyes and spew out brick breath.

            Korean original (page 295)

            잊어버린 말과 잃어버린 말이 벽돌이 되어 벽돌 입안에 갇힌다. 벽돌 연필과 벽돌 만년필이 벽돌 바닥으로 추락한다. 벽돌 단어와 벽돌 문장 들이 벽돌 바닥으로 추락한다. 벽돌 세계가 무너지지 않는다. 벽돌 세계가 팽창하지 않는다. 벽돌 네가 그대로 벽돌이 되어 벽돌 시간이 정지한다. 벽돌 내가 벽돌 눈을 뜨고 벽돌 너를 바라본다.
            ….
            나는 너를 어떤 이름으로 불러야 할까. 여기가지 쓰고 난 뒤 나는 벽돌 눈을 감고 벽돌 숨을 내뱉는다.

            It looks like a very literal translation. Whether it reads better in the Korean is difficult for me to say. But one point is that the lack of pronouns (“Brick pencil and brick fountain pen” rather than “A/the brick pencil and a/the brick fountain pen”) is natural in Korean and artificial/contrived in English.

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            1. Paul – Is it OK if I post this comment at the end of the review? It would be good to use that to show what we’re talking about.

              Like

  3. NB just to give another couple of examples:

    One from the novel’s frontpiece, which I don’t think is a great one. A fountain pen plays a key role at certain times – in Korean the word is 만년필 (10000 year pen). “In the Korean original, Mia says that it’s called a ten thousand year pen because it will write for ten thousand years: in the English translation, she says it’s called a fountain pen because there is a fountain of ink inside.” – but that isn’t “an example of this novel’s ingenious word play” as the frontpiece suggests – it is just Korean vs English entomology.

    A better example from the translator. The sentences “Her dirty running shoes are sprinkled with blood. One sprinkle, two sprinkles, three sprinkles. Hey Sprinkles, she calls out to the kitten”. The Korean original had 방울(droplet also small bell) – Janet Hong needed a word that could describe blood, be countable and be a popular pet name for a kitten; sprinkle is a very clever solution.

    Liked by 1 person

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