‘Europa’ by Han Kang & ‘Milena, Milena, Ecstatic’ by Bae Suah (Review)

It’s finally August, and that means it’s time for a month devoted to the work of authors writing in languages other than English, also known as Women in Translation MonthMeytal Radzinski of the Biblibio blog started the event off in 2014, and it’s quickly become one of the most celebrated and successful events of the blogging year.  This year, I’ll be posting the usual reviews, and there’ll be a little surprise in the last week, too, so stay tuned for that.

While I’ll be encountering some new writers this month, to start things off today I’m looking at two short books from some rather familiar faces.  A couple of years back, Strangers Press brought out the Keshiki – New Voices from Japan series, comprising eight chapbooks of contemporary Japanese stories.  Now the press is back, but with a new focus.  The latest series (assisted by LTI Korea) is called Yeoyu, a Korean follow-up to the Japanese set, so if you’re looking for big names in Korean fiction, I’ve got a couple for you today – well, three, actually…

Han Kang’s ‘Europa’ (translated by Deborah Smith, review copy courtesy of the publisher) starts off as a gentle love story, with an unnamed narrator meeting up with In-ah, a woman he’s been friends with for many years, and has desired for almost as long.  Part of the story involves their in-depth talks about life, night-time walks through busy Seoul streets and memories of how they met.

However, there’s another side to the story, with the narrator leading a double life, one In-ah has decided to help him with:

After carefully colouring my lips, I stand in front of the full-length mirror.  Black stockings conceal the hair on my thighs and calves, a pale-coloured scarf lies against the deep green dress, and I stand with my hands clasped neatly in front.  I look like an air stewardess.
‘Europa’, p.13 (Strangers Press, 2019)

While he still leads a ‘normal’ life, inside he yearns to be a woman, to look like In-ah.  Yet he’s confused by what he sees as a contradictory urge, wanting to be with In-ah sexually, too…

‘Europa’ is a beautiful little story focusing on two people who aren’t sure there’s a place for them in the harsh, conformist society they live in.  The narrator hasn’t yet made the leap outside this world, duly fulfilling his societal duties (military service, the usual office job), but In-ah has already been hurt and dropped out, damaged by a failed (and brutal) marriage.  In her usual, attentive, caring manner, Han shows us how difficult life can be for those who want to trangress societal norms, whether by going it alone like In-ah or by keeping their true nature buried inside like the narrator, only ocasionally allowing it to surface in the company of a trusted friend.

Interestingly, the title has nothing to do with sunny holidays on the Mediterranean, or dreams of a society where you can be yourself.  Instead, it comes from a song In-ah writes, describing one of Jupiter’s moons.  The narrator is captivated by the melancholy lyrics, and this frozen world acts as a metaphor for the lives the two friends lead, both for its dark, cold nature and its distance from the world where most people go through their lives:

Calling me affectionately by name, she asked, If you’d been born as you wanted, how do you think you would have lived?  I didn’t answer.  If you were able to live as you desire, what would you do with your life? (p.31)

Sadly, the story hints that the two are likely to continue orbiting around society, and each other, spending most of their lives in the cold and dark…

The protagonists of Bae Suah’s ‘Milena, Milena, Ecstatic’ (again in Smith’s translation) also appear to be flowing outside the mainstream, but this piece has a slightly different feel and mood.  Bae’s story is a day in the life of Hom Yun, an indie film-maker with a solitary and idiosyncratic lifestyle, and we follow him as he goes about his daily business, carefully making his morning coffee (by hand), taking a lengthy bath (warm) and dressing for an appointment he has in the city (t-shirt, trousers and jacket, all black).

His meeting at a cultural foundation is a success, with enough funding for two years’ filming in Kazakhstan and Mongolia secured, so he takes a well-earned break in the city, having some coffee, watching a movie and then enjoying a few drinks, all in the company of a woman he met at the foundation.  His actions seem fairly straightforward and normal, so why does it feel like there’s something wrong here, as if the man’s life isn’t quite as ordinary as it appears?

This is typical of Bae and her ability to keep the reader off-balance, and one cause of this effect is her detached view of Hom, using a third-person narrative in the present tense to follow his path:

Hom Yun heads for the subway station with the intention of returning home, only to abruptly switch direction; he decides instead to walk the early afternoon streets for a while.  Having thought of little else lately, part of him wants to go straight home and continue working on his film scenario but, as he’s already in the city, he also wants to enjoy a sliver of free time, to sit in a café with two cups of espresso.
‘Milena, Milena, Ecstatic’, p.20

There’s an almost scientific approach to the story, with the writer observing Hom as if he’s the subject of an experiment, and if that style seems oddly familiar, the title provides a clue to Bae’s influence here.  It comes from a book Hom picks up when having a bath (and then flicks through again at a café), Letters to Milena, which some readers may recognise.  It’s a collection of letters Franz Kafka sent to the Czech writer and translator Milena Jesenská, and it seems apt that Hom’s reading this book when the young woman he met at the cultural foundation approaches him with an unusual request.

Like much of Bae’s work, ‘Milena, Milena, Ecstatic’ is an interesting, yet puzzling read, with a confusing ending featuring mirrors, corridors and a door opening – I have no idea what it means, but it’s fascinating all the same.  And if you’re a fan of her work, I have good news as it looks like there’s a new book on the way, with Untold Night and Day due to be published in the UK next January by Jonathan Cape.  The translator?  Well, I think you know that already…

That’s all for today, but I’ll be looking at the other six books in the Yeoyu series in due course, and I can promise you that there are translators other than Smith involved in the project 😉  Before that, though, we have the rest of #WITMonth to get through, so look out for some more posts by women writers over the next few weeks.  August is going to be a very busy month…

4 thoughts on “‘Europa’ by Han Kang & ‘Milena, Milena, Ecstatic’ by Bae Suah (Review)

  1. Lovely reviews! I look forward to reading these both during the month. It’s interesting and impressive that, unless I counted wrong, 7 of the 8 Yeoyo books are by women.


    1. Thanks 🙂 I think you might be right, although there are a couple I don’t know. Korea is one country that does have a fairly healthy gender balance, in terms of what gets translated, at least.


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