A short story is an unlikely review subject, but “Person of Korea” has several things going for it: first, it’s by Paul Yoon and in its detached observational style is illustrative of the author’s other work. Second, it’s set among the Korean diaspora in the Russia Far East; although the Russian Far East has begun to feature in an increasing amount of fiction, the only other work with this particular combination that comes to mind is Jeff Talarigo’s The Ginseng Hunter. And third, it’s available online at The Atlantic.
The story, and the telling, is spare. Maksim’s father is away working in Sakhalin as a guard at a prison:
The older people call it “the camp” because it was a labor camp run by the Japanese, when the Japanese claimed the southern half of the island. They rounded up thousands of Koreans during wartime and brought them there to log, pulp paper, mine coal. Maksim’s grandfather had been one of the laborers when he was in his 20s. When the war ended, many of them, including Maksim’s grandfather, never went back home.
Maksim, still a teen, has been living on the mainland with his uncle, who has died. With such money as there was having run out, Maksim sets off with his dog to find his father, which first requires finding a boat.
It’s not clear whether Yoon has ever been to Russia; he has set stories such as “Vladivostok Station” (this one in Harpers) there before. It’s also not clear he needs to have been: he has a talent for locking settings down with a detail or two, whether it be Brazil or Laos.
Yoon is, as usual, vivid and laconic: Sakhalin, Maksim sees on the map: “is 950 kilometers long and 160 kilometers wide. It is like a giant, leaping fish.” When Maksim hears his father laugh for the first time in years, “it is like ash being thrown over a small fire inside him.” And, as usual, there is no resolution: we can only guess what happens to Maksim once he’s confronted his father.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.