Seoul 1954. The Korean War armistice has been signed less than a year ago. Millions are dead and a shattered country struggles to rise from the rubble. There is little food and even less hope. Seoul teems with ghosts.
One such ghost is Alice J Kim, the protagonist of The Starlet and the Spy. Before the war she was Kim Ae-Sun: a well-off, pampered artist educated in Japan. Her beauty attracted two prominent men: Yo Min-hwan, a married Korean intellectual, and Joseph Pines, an American agent. Now her lovers are assumed dead. The war has prematurely turned her hair grey. She lives in a leaky shack, steals “Playboy” magazines for her landlady’s impotent husband and, more than anything, prays for death. Not even her highly-prized job as a translator for the American forces still stationed in Seoul brings her relief—the only thing that comes close to a reason to live is her desperate search for Chong-nim, an orphaned girl she helped during the evacuation of Hungnam.
It’s under these circumstances that Alice is informed she’ll be Marilyn Monroe’s interpreter during the latter’s four-day USO tour to Korea. Alice is somewhat dismissive—what could she and this American movie star have in common? The answer, at least according to the blurb, is more than she thinks as Marilyn’s visit forces Alice “to confront her own painful past”.
Trauma is the unspoken lynchpin on which this slim novel turns, but the interest lies in how different characters cope. Some show signs of healing: Ku-yong, Alice’s friend and fellow artist, confesses that for the first time since the war he wants to make art again. Yu-ja, another friend, displays her ardent vitality and zest for life with makeup, short skirts and dancing. And as for the “Playboys” that Alice is tasked with stealing by her middle-aged landlady, they’re the latter’s attempt at overcoming her husband’s impotence and getting pregnant again—after her three children died in the war. Even Seoul itself stirs, as infrastructure and pre-war department stores spring up everywhere.
But not Alice. Alice remains numb and nihilistic, tortured throughout the novel by her nightmares of what she did in the war. It takes the whole book—with all of its fantastical twists and turns—before she gives up on killing herself. The breakdown she suffered during the war isolates her from others, who think her mad. Her grim demeanor—the funereal, black gloves and beer-dyed hair—don’t help matters either. Even her desire to find Chong-nim is more about a general search for redemption before death than an individualized concern for Chong-nim specifically or for embracing a future with another person.
It’s said that survivors of traumatic events divide into two camps: those who do not die and those who come back to life. This book is about the journey, or possible journey, between those two states.
Accomplished translator Chi Young Kim is behind the book’s English edition, but not even her skills could overcome the fact that this is, fundamentally, a Korean book. The painful history it recounts, the values it depends on, the criticisms it makes are all endemically situated. It feels like something is lost in translation.
And although the themes are weighty and the historical context harrowing, Alice’s actions are highly improbable and the plot needlessly convoluted, not helped by the author’s choice to make the timeline an emotional rather than a linear one. Monroe’s portrayal is also rather disappointing: part-bimbo, part-wounded soul, all stereotype, she mostly acts as a symbol of American cultural solipsism, as well as the bustling foreground for Alice’s internal and external journey. The thinly-veiled racism by American characters towards Koreans is mostly unexplored, as is the internalized racism in Alice towards a Marilyn she is both disdainful towards and envious of.
In fact, the final scuffle between Alice and a North Korean spy, which concludes with a pot of yellow paint being shot and Alice’s trauma-shocked grey hair being turned a bright blonde could be perceived through this racial narrative. A part of Alice has been admiring Marilyn’s (dyed) blonde hair, but when she symbolically becomes a “Marilyn” herself, she wryly sees the emptiness of her desire (and of American culture). Then again, one questions whether such a culturally-critical interpretation was actually the intent of an author who says things like, “a woman’s beauty is powerful enough to change her fate, though it becomes useless as she grows old”.
The Starlet and the Spy is a readable thriller-romance novel, the premise of which is based on an interesting quirk of history. And as Marilyn herself once said, “imperfection is beauty”.