‘The World’s Most Expensive Novel’ by Kim Min-jung & ‘Danny’ by Yun I-hyeong (Review)

I’ve had great fun working my way through the K-Fiction short stories I’ve been lucky enough to receive as review copies from Asia Publishers, and when (if…) my Korean improves, I’m sure I’ll be spending more time on reading them in the original language too.  However, for now, I’ve reached the end of the series, with today’s post looking at the final two stories.  Have we saved the best for last?  Let’s just say that it was a split decision, with one impressing me more than the other – let’s find out which way the verdict went 🙂

Kim Min-jung’s The World’s Most Expensive Novel (translated by Jeon Seung-hee) is a rather strange piece, consisting of the musings of a writer on her work and her (floundering) career.  After winning a short-story prize, she decided to commit herself to writing, comparing herself in her acceptance speech to a company worker who would work hard to make a success of her ‘job’.  However, several years on, she finds herself at home with no commissions in sight while her mother waits in the next room for the sound of the printer (proof, she thinks, that her daughter is doing some real work).  To make matters worse, the writer’s brother, having founded a successful investment fund, is worth millions, while she has calculated her pay so far to 5oo won (5c) per letter.

There’s more to the story than a simple whinge about the life of a writer, though.  Kim gradually pulls her ideas together to discuss the worth of literature in a capitalist society, reflecting on how the siblings both deal with essentially intangible, invisible goods, yet are rewarded so differently.  There’s a sense that she needs to convince herself that she is a writer:

Whether I wrote a piece of fiction or not, whether it was good or bad, nobody noticed.  If my mom hadn’t asked whether I finished a piece or not, there was no way to distinguish whether the writing that was printed on the paper was my diary or a work of fiction.  The pieces of writing that had not been published in literary magazines or books were both literature and not.  They did exist, but they might as well not exist.
p.22 (Asia Publishers, 2016)

In the end, she decides that it’s no use waiting for work.  Instead, she should look to history for inspiration and seek a patron for her work.  If the world is more concerned with money than art, then perhaps selling out isn’t such a bad thing…

There’s a large dose of irony in The World’s Most Expensive Novel, most evident in the way the writer uses a theme of product placement throughout the story, describing her Samsung notebook in great detail and praising the refreshing Lotte tangerine juice she sips while writing.  However, while the story does improve on a reread, I still (ironically enough) don’t quite buy it, and the slightly over-literal translation does the tone of the story no favours.  While Kim does make some interesting comments on the value, and worth, of literature in an age of commodities, it’s all a little heavy-handed.  Still, she could always go into advertising.

Luckily, today’s second story, Yun I-hyeong’s Danny (again translated by Jeon Seung-hee) was far more to my liking.  After plunging us into the middle of a police investigation, the writer pulls back a little to focus on her main character, a seventy-two-year-old woman left looking after her grandson full-time when her daughter returns to work.  With her body aching, and little Minu crying much of the time, the old woman’s life is a slog from one weekend to the next:

I wasn’t sure whether a life like that could be called life, not just subsistence or survival.  I had become a sort of utensil, like a spoon.  I loaded the baby precariously onto my swaying body and carried it from day to night, from one day to the next.
pp.43/5 (Asia Publishers, 2015)

Resigned to her sad existence, the woman is forced to endure without support – until, that is, she encounters Danny.

From the start, there’s something a little unusual about him, a twenty-four-year-old who wants to get to know an exhausted pensioner, but it’s only after a few encounters that she is told the truth.  Danny is an android babysitter, one of fifty imported from the US and sent out on trial with a select group of families, and he is able to intuitively sense what children need, allowing him to soothe crying babies effortlessly.  Despite her initial reticence, the grandmother finds herself becoming closer to her new acquaintance, but having started the story at the police station, we know that we’ll be back at some point – we’re just not sure why…

A slightly longer story than some in the series, Danny cleverly uses a spec-fic idea to examine a very modern phenomenon.  While the interest is initially in the robot, the true focus of the story is on the grandmother, a woman burdened with all the trouble of a young mother but without the youthful energy to cope.  While Minu’s mother might seem a little selfish pushing her child off on her own mum, there is a sub-plot that helps explain it a little, with incidents at child-care centres leading people to place their trust in family members instead.

Much Korean fiction looks at the plight of families struggling to keep up with the pace of modern life, but Yun uses this case study to show how the country’s elderly women are overworked by the younger generations.  Here we have an old woman, a very human face of the issue, struggling with dodgy knees, incontinence and five flights of stairs because her daughter has to work.  It takes an android to see the beauty in her, empathising with her self-sacrifice and recognising a kindred spirit.  Sadly, this is a chance relationship that is doomed before it has really begun.

Well, I’m sure you can tell which was my favourite of today’s choices, and to be honest, Danny would probably be one of my top picks from the whole series (there’s a link here to Cheon Myeong-kwan’s Homecoming, another of my favourites, in the use of speculative fiction to analyse current societal issues).  Here’s hoping that there are more of these little bilingual gems on the way – they’re a great way to discover new Korean writers, and I’m keen to see who might be the next one to break through in English 🙂

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