Marlene Dietrich famously sang of still having a suitcase in Berlin, a wistful testament to the evocative power of memory and the hold that people and places can have on us. In many ways the unnamed Korean female narrator in Bae Suah’s novella A Greater Music has left her own suitcase in the German capital, one packed with scraps of memories from a broken intimate relationship with an older German woman and the morning-after emotions that surface when reflecting on a life lived elsewhere.
The changing balance between Asia and the West is a function not just of the relative rise of the Asian economies but also of the apparent withdrawal of the United States from a multi-decade commitment to global leadership, a development which if anything seems to be accelerating under the only recently-installed Trump administration. One place where these two factors coincide dramatically is Latin America, a region that the United States has long considered—somewhat patronizingly, perhaps—as its backyard.
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.
Set in New York, Ha Jin’s new novel, The Boat Rocker, takes place “a week before the fourth anniversary of 9/11”. Much of the novel’s power derives from the uncanny parallels between the issues faced by its central figure, a truth-seeking online journalist in the era of Hu Jintao and George W Bush, and all of us, in our Trumpian moment, as we struggle with its penchant for “alternative facts”.
Despite being set in Zamana, a fictional city in contemporary Pakistan, this novel is no fantasy. Its depiction of religious intolerance is quite the opposite—all too depressingly real. Yet author Nadeem Aslam shines hope into nightmare with the notion that love (and books) could, one day, conquer all.
Last year, Korean literature burst into English-language consciousness when Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize. The process began earlier, of course: Kyung-sook Shin had won the Man Asian Literary Prize a few years previously. But this is nevertheless a phenomenon of relatively recent vintage.
Not everyone can be a Han Kang, and there aren’t many major literary prizes which take works in translation, so it’s a good thing that Dalkey Archive Press is plugging with away with translations of other important Korean writers.
William J Rust has been researching and studying the history of US relations with the nations of Southeast Asia for more than three decades in an effort to explain the origins of the Second Indochina War. His latest book, Eisenhower & Cambodia, focuses on the Eisenhower administration’s policies toward Cambodia and its mercurial leader Norodom Sihanouk after that country gained its independence in the wake of the First Indochina War against France.