If Mannequin is any evidence, Ch’oe Yun is a writer’s writer. This 2003 novel, only now released in English translation, is a dreamlike reflection on beauty and human existence.
Both challenging and subtle in construction, the novel deals in impressions rather than plot. The story, to which atmosphere clings like mist on a hillside, centers around Jini, a young (teenage) advertising model and the mannequin of the title. A commercial success, she has been been used to promote products since she was a baby, lifting her family out of poverty in the process. Cherished yet controlled, she finally throws it all over and runs away.
Except for Jini, the characters are known through mostly sea-inspired nicknames: her siblings Starfish and Shark, her mother Agar-Agar, her manager Conch. The sea, indeed, appears throughout the book as a setting, an objective, and a metaphor.
Jini’s sudden disappearance throws everyone’s lives into disarray; those whose existence depended on hers are suddenly at a complete loss. A second intertwined narrative involves Lionfish who, on a pre-wedding diving holiday with his fiancée D, aka Pink Anemone, sees a young woman “curled up like a baby in its mother’s womb and wearing an almost transparent suit of blue, nearly indistinguishable from the color of the sea” drifted down towards them.
There was no stirring on the peaceful expression on her face, an intensely gentle expression that suddenly touched my heart…
It was Jini filming an air conditioner advertisement.
This marriage ends in almost immediate tragedy, but Lionfish is left with the image of his “little goddess”.
Jini goes off into the world to interact with it in her own unique way. She takes trains, stays in cheap hotels, squats; the evident squalor never seems to touch her. Lionfish sets out on a quest to find her. The details of the story matter less, perhaps, than the way the book is subtly permeated with questions and contradictions.
Atmosphere clings to the story like mist on a hillside.
Jini never interacts with other people in the normal plane. She is, for one thing, mute, perhaps voluntarily but she stopped speaking at age nine due to an incident of apparent violence. She communicates physically, by touch and through dance, almost spiritually. She is beautiful, uniquely so, yet because she is used in product advertisements, often just a part of her body at a time, the general public seem to have no clear idea whom she is, a sort of anonymity which allows her her to run away and not be recognised by, apparently, anyone.
Jini, in other words, although she can touch people instinctively, remains distant, unknowable even, perhaps, to herself. The various characters express themselves in the first-person, except that is for Jini—and interestingly, her mother—whose stories are told in the third. The other characters express themselves directly; Jini remains veiled. So while Jini is searching for an independent human existence, she is simultaneously a symbol and allegory. She never shucks the latter off; it seems to be part of her.
Ch’oe Yun is a professor of French literature, and one can perhaps hear echoes of this in her novel. Stylistically certainly, but Jini might well appear in Western literature as an angel. Jung Yewon’s translation is accomplished, with limpid, poetic prose reserved for the passages about Jini.