Kids these days: heads buried in their cellphones; obsessed with consumer goods, boyfriends and pop music; stressed by grades and peer pressure. Their parents don’t pay attention and give them too much money. They kill cats. And maybe other things…
… at least in Kim Sagwa’s Mina, a 2008 Korean novel newly translated into English by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton. Mina is herself part of a trio of teenagers that her includes her brother Minho and Crystal who, rather than Mina, is the protagonist.
Crystal is one seriously messed-up kid. One the one hand, she goes to a good school, has boyfriends, texts nonstop, listens to music, shops, hangs out—whatever is that teenagers now do, or did a decade ago when the book was first published. On the other hand, she is obsessed with perfection in her schoolwork, goes to cram school, and is angst-ridden about her place in the universe and in her small circle of peers. Her essays are planned to the comma, she relaxes with physics equations, she goes to bed well past midnight and she turns every little thing over and over in her head.
She more or less holds it together until Mina’s erstwhile friend Pak Chiye jumps off a building. Crystal takes Mina’s resulting introspection as a personal affront and begins to lose her grip, while at the same time striking up a relationship with Minho, Mina’s dishy brother. But Crystal’s metal collapse seems to be inherent in her—she is not driven to it by avoidable circumstance or trauma; she is not a victim of anything in particular.
There is a simple quality to the prose and and scenarios that means that the book is probably readable by teens as well as, if not more so than, adults. (Parts of the book might be considered shocking, but there’s much worse in the newspapers, to say nothing of films and videogames.)
Asian readers will recognize the incident of student suicide with no apparent direct proximate cause. They will also recognize the particular stress of “tiger parent” scholastic expectations combined with a lack of directed parental attention. Other readers might be struck by the distinctly European and Western direction of the gaze of these kids, not just in their pop-culture choices but also in their ability to discourse on, and think about, Jung, Rousseau and Derrida. Mina would be an interesting book to pass by teachers of senior secondary students in, probably, East Asian international schools. It might just take.
Characters and scenes are drawn with sharp edges, designed to shock.
And yet, there is something missing. Some of this seems to be down to the author, who has eschewed the oft-recommended invocation to “show and not tell”, for there are long passages of semi-editorial description:
The private education system in P City looks down upon P City’s broken public education system, offering a customized and quality education based on a student’s achievement level. It’s not a solution, merely a gigantic market that feeds off the broken public school system. The cram schools make a place for themselves by seizing on the flaws and weaknesses of the public schools, creating a massive market, and so they succeed, but that’s it. They analyze everything from a business’s point of view. They try to provide the best service to their consumers, but they lack any kind of spirit. And what is spirit anyway? How much of a demand is there for it? And how does one market spirit? When one cram-school guru comes up with a document full of English in response to these questions, another guru counters with a document full of Chinese characters.
This passage goes on for a couple of pages; so do others.
But Mina also shows up some of conflicts inherent in the process of translation, including the simple fact that it took a decade for the book to come out in English. The evident intent of the author to be up-to-moment with cellphones (that text!), karaoke and name-dropping English bands like U2 are references that can now seem a bit quaint, if not dated.
But the novel can also seem curiously bleached of cultural content. Except for a few mentions of Korean food or the occasional bow, there is little that ties the story and characters down to one place or another. This again might be down to the author. But the characters also come up with expressions in contemporary colloquial English teen- or millennial-speak, such as “Dumbass” or “I’m good”. The result, mirrored in the translation as a whole, is to flatten the cultural landscape: the book is supposed to be taking place in a largish Korean city, not, say, San Francisco.
One could argue that perhaps mainstream anglophone readers won’t connect as well with evidently Korean teens, but this vagueness removes what should have, or least could have been, the novel’s distinguishing feature: a portal into the lives and minds of Korean kids in whose differences and similarities we can see a reflection of our own tribulations (whomever we might be).
Sagwa is nonetheless an edgy writer, albeit sometimes (it would appear) self-consciously so. Characters and scenes are drawn with sharp edges, designed to shock. Despite some drawbacks, the effect by about midway through becomes hypnotic. One continues through to the disturbing end.