Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon
A North Korean POW, rather than returning after the Armistice, accepts an offer of a new life as a tailor’s apprentice in, of all places, a town on the coast of Brazil. This is the incongruous introduction to Yohan, the protagonist of Paul Yoon’s debut novel Snow Hunters.
The tailor, Kiyoshi, is a kindly old Japanese man who gently guides Yohan into this new life and is there when the nightmares come. It is a modest existence of tailoring, mending, sewing buttons and delivering packages. Through Kiyoshi, Peixe, the groundskeeper of the local church and who had polio as a child and, especially, the two orphans Santi and Bia who drift in and out of the town and his life, Yohan slowly comes to terms with the wartime trauma that revisits him throughout the book.
It is a book of simple images and simple pleasures contrasted with deep trauma and profound loss. Yet the simplicity of Snow Hunters—a rare instance of Asian-Latin American literary fusion—is deceptive. Although concise—fewer than 200 short pages—each word would seem to have been chosen with care.
And of the many words that could describe Snow Hunters—poetic, observant, poignant, compassionate, refined, elegiac, limpid—I’ll choose “dreamlike”. Yohan, the North Korean adrift in search of an anchorage in Brazil, is in his new world, but is never quite of it. Initially, he is linguistically deaf and mute; even later, his relationships with others are always tentative, as if they might, like the images in a dream, be snatched away at any time. For the reader as well, the town, the people and Yohan himself appear tantalizing tangible, yet shimmer and fade as one gets too close and reaches out to grasp them.
The setting isn’t the only Latin American element that Yoon has brought to his novel; there’s a touch of magic realism—reminiscent of that marvelous Brazilian writer Jorge Amado, perhaps—about this town and its inhabitants. Santi, the young urchin, and Bia, the older girl, a sister in fact if not in name, are often not there when they are present, and there in spirit when they are not in the flesh. Might Santi and Bia be more than just characters? It doesn’t take much familiarity with iconography to think that they might, as might the umbrella that Bia gives Yohan when he first lands.
Yoon doesn’t display Amado’s overt sensuality, but seems to share his delight in the sonority of the Portuguese language, empathy with society’s misfits, a keen eye for the beauty and meaning in everyday objects and activities, the gentle sense of humor and a confidence in the power of human contact to lighten woe.
There’s much of the horrors of war in Snow Hunters—several chapters deal with the War and the POW camp—but Yoon doesn’t dwell on them. There is instead a groundswell of the small things—the greetings, glances, silences—by which people, outcasts of one kind or another, diffident through fear and social unease, come to understand, rely upon and ultimately love one another.
It can be easy to forget that there was Asian immigration to places other than North America, and that the immigrants were not always coming to build railroads or cut sugar cane, and that they weren’t all Chinese or Japanese. There are few literary treatments—in English at any rate—of Asian immigrants in Latin America.
Asians might note Yohan’s ability to understand Kiyoshi’s Japanese, a legacy of Japan colonial occupation. Kiyoshi and Yohan’s mutual respect and affection would hardly seem a foregone conclusion. But Kiyoshi, too, had come to Brazil from war, his in the Russian Far East, and had spent time in a camp.
* * *
There are books that stay in the memory long after the last page is turned. Even after the characters’ names and details of the plot are forgotten, some residue of feeling remains. Snow Hunters is one of these.