“Winter in Sokcho” by Elisa Shua Dusapin

Elisa Shua Dusapin Elisa Shua Dusapin

In the dead of winter, a Frenchman arrives at a small guest house in Sokcho where Franco-Korean author Elisa Shua Dusapin’s narrator works in a dead-end job as receptionist and run-about. Sokcho is a nondescript seaside town not far from the North Korean border. In the summer, Sokcho is a beach resort, if not the most upmarket; in winter, there is not much going on. Her mother works in the fish market, cooks an excellent octopus, and is one of the few who can prepare fugo so it isn’t poisonous. As for her father:


My French origins were still a source of gossip even though it was twenty-three years since my father had seduced my mother and then vanished without a trace.


Yan Kerrand, for such is the name on the visitor’s passport, “draws comics”,  graphic novels,


about a globe-trotting archaeologist. A different location for each book, a voyage in monochrome ink wash. No dialogue, very few words. A lone figure. With a striking resemblance to the author.


He’s quite a bit older than she is.


Winter in Sochko, Elisa Shua Dusapin, Aneesa Abbas Higgins (trans) (Daunt Books, February 2020)
Winter in Sokcho, Elisa Shua Dusapin, Aneesa Abbas Higgins (trans) (Daunt Books, February 2020; Open Letter, April 2021)

Winter in Sokcho is a gentle, quiet story of a slowly developing relationship. He is enigmatic. He draws the old-fashioned way, ink on paper. His vocation consumes and frustrates. He is in Sochko because he thinks he’ll find a story there. She is not so much drifting through life as floating, between one thing and another. There’s a boy, sort of, Jun-oh, but he’s off to modelling school.

They—somewhat aimlessly—visit the border or have dinner in what passes locally for a restaurant. Indeed, much is aimless except the drawing:


His fingers skimmed tentatively across the page. The brush stuttered, unsure of the figure’s proportions. The face, especially. A woman, she didn’t look Western. He probably wasn’t used to drawing women, I hadn’t seen many among his characters. She started to spin, her dress swinging. Skinny one moment, curvaceous the next, arms reaching out, pulling back, the twisting form taking shape beneath his brush.


She tries to understand him through his drawings. He appears to be trying to understand himself.


Winter in Sokcho—filled with such well-observed, sometimes wry detail as the guest house’s wifi password “ilovesokcho, all one word, no capitals”—is a short book, even shorter than its 150 pages would indicate. The chapters are short, sometimes just a page two, rarely more than several, with blank pages in-between. The short scenes, the economic language, the quick cuts in scene, abridged dialogue have the rhythm of a bande dessinée (a French comic), but with prose substituting for the drawings. Of course, there is the artist for that:


He finished the background in pencil and took up his pen to give her eyes. The woman sat up. Straight backed. Hair swept back. The chin awaiting a mouth.  Kerrand’s breath came faster and faster, in time with the strokes of his pen, until a set of white teeth exploded into laughter on the page. The sound too deep for a woman’s laugh. Kerrand knocked over the inkpot, the woman reeled, tried to cry out again, but the ink slid between her lips, blacking her out until she vanished completely.


As the lines between ink and reality blur, the feeling—that this is a bande dessinée without pictures—intensifies.

Winter in Sokcho is rare not because is a Korean novel in translation, but because it is in translation from French. There is an extract of the first chapter of the original Hiver à Sokcho is on-line. Those who care to can observe the care Aneesa Abbas Higgins has taken in her translation, capturing almost word for word Dusapin’s laconic prose and varied rhythms of the original.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.