‘Die sonderbare Karriere der Frau Choi’ (‘Mrs. Choi’s Remarkable Career’) by Birgit Vanderbeke (Review)

After the first two weeks of German Literature Month were spent on serialising my translation of a classic German novella, normal service is resumed today with November’s first real review.  Birgit Vanderbeke is a name that should be familiar to most of my readers, and in this short novel she takes us off to France for a light story of intrigue in the provinces.  Surprisingly, though, there’s a foreign flavour to today’s offering – this is a novel with a heady taste of Korea…

Die sonderbare Karriere der Frau Choi (Mrs. Choi’s Remarkable Career) is set in the south-west of France, more specifically, in the sleepy town of M**.  While the summer brings campers into the countryside, the rest of the year can be rather quiet, and long-term visitors, let alone new residents, are a rare sight.  It’s little surprise, then, that the arrival of Mrs. Choi, a Korean women from Gwangju (via Amsterdam) provokes talk, and Yolande, an outsider in the town herself, is only too keen to make the acquaintance of the newcomer and her son.

On the whole, Mrs. Choi is a quiet, withdrawn character, yet her calm demeanour hides big plans, all of which will involve the town and drag it into the future.  Predictably, though, not everyone is happy to go along with these modernisation projects, and several people go to extreme lengths to prevent the changes from proceeding.  As obstacles mysteriously crop up, it takes the community’s resolve, and all of Mrs. Choi’s wisdom, to keep the town heading in the right direction.

Vanderbeke seems to specialise in short works, with all three of the books I’ve read clocking in at around 120 pages.  There’s The Mussel Feast, of course, a terse family drama that was shortlisted for the (now-defunct) Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and I Spy, With My Little Eye, which described a German woman’s move to France.  It’s the latter book that has a lot in common with today’s choice, what with its focus of a woman and her child moving to a foreign environment (in fact, Vanderbeke’s home since 1993).

The main focus of the first half of book is Mrs. Choi’s plans for a Korean restaurant in the wilderness, the fascinatingly named ‘Bapguagup’.  Unfortunately, the site she buys turns out to be wanted by the government for military testing…  The mayor makes a phone call to ask for help with getting rid of her, but the government (having had problems in earlier cases) is unwilling to face the negative publicity of compulsory purchases, instead pushing responsibility back in the direction of the hapless mayor:

Guter Mann, sagt man ihm also, Sie werden wohl Ihre drei Leutchen noch dazu bringen, daß sie ihren Hintern bewegen.  Da gibt es doch wohl Methoden, Ihnen fällt da bestimmt was ein.
p.28 (Fischer Verlag, 2011)

My good man, he is told, I’m sure you’ll be able to get your three little people to move their backsides.  There are ways and means, I’m sure you’ll think of something.
*** (my translation)

It’s back to the drawing board, but while he might be able to persuade one or two of the recalcitrant residents, the Korean newcomer is to prove more difficult to dislodge.

This bullet is eventually dodged, but it’s just the first of many bumps on the road to progress.  In fact, Vanderbeke’s novel is less about one event than a steady chronicle of a town’s path to modernity.  As it grows, and more people come to visit, even Yolande’s campsite becomes a site for improvement.  While she’s initially uncertain, her new friend has no such doubts:

Frau Choi sagt: Glauben Sie mir.  Die Leute werden kommen.  Sie sollten bald anfangen. (p.58)

Mrs. Choi says: Trust me.  The people will come.  You should start on it soon. ***

This Field of Dreams prediction comes true, and as Mrs. Choi’s plans succeed, the town benefits, with new roads, more tourists and more jobs.  However, the benefits are also personal as the residents dare to dream and are rewarded for it, both financially and socially.

In many ways, Mrs. Choi’s Remarkable Career is a feminist work, with a noticeable feature of the book being the circle of women (Yolande, Mathilde – an old goat farmer -, her daughter Marie-Ange) coalescing around the newcomer.  They’re encouraged to think big and take risks, in contrast with the collection of men wanting to maintain the status quo, such as the corrupt, scheming mayor and Marie-Ange’s aggressive ex-boyfriend.   By the end of the book, the women are in firm control, occupying most of the key positions in the thriving town, and without giving too much away, there are a surprising number of deaths for a short work – and none of them happen to women…

I’d have to say, though, that I wasn’t all that taken with the book.  Part of this is due to the style Vanderbeke opts for, a dispassionate narratory style lending the story a slight distance.  It’s clearly told from the perspective of well after the events being described, with Mrs. Choi’s success assumed.  This means that it can be a little hard to warm to.  Every time you think a major event is finally coming, it’s summarily dismissed, and all the problems are breezily cast aside.  As a result, it all feels a bit samey after a while, even if there is another strand to the tale lurking below the surface.

Another issue I had with the book concerned Mrs. Choi herself, a character who is central to the story, yet strangely peripheral.  The Korean angle was fairly weak, and in truth she could have come from anywhere (the point, perhaps, but…).  There’s more than a shade here of the rather clichéd mysterious Asian woman.  She’s quiet, strong, and not to be crossed, with secret traditional knowledge and an affinity with plants.  But is she actually well written? I’ll leave that to you to decide.

Overall, Mrs. Choi’s Remarkable Career makes for a rather light affair, as might have been guessed from the blurbs on the back cover.  Are they from such sources as Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or Der Spiegel?  No – they’re actually provided by two ‘women’s’ magazines, Brigitte and Für Sie.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does indicate the kind of reader the book is aimed at.  Peirene Press are bringing out another Vanderbeke book next year (You Would Have Missed Me), but I suspect this one won’t be following it into English any time soon.  It’s an enjoyable read at times, but I’m afraid there’s little ‘remarkable’ about it…

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