A Small Contemplation of Life’s Big Problems: The Salmon Who Wanted to Swim to the Stars by Ahn Do-hyun

  • onAugust 2, 2016
  • Vol.32 Summer 2016
  • byClaudia Kramatschek
Der Fisch, der zu den Sternen schwimmen wollte (The Salmon Who Wanted to Swim to the Stars)
Tr. Hyuk-Sook Kim and Manfred Selzer

When I first saw Ahn Do-hyun’s The Salmon Who Wanted to Swim to the Stars on my desk, I wanted to put aside this thin book with its stylized Japanese illustration on the cover. To tell you the truth, I don’t normally find this genre, a fable for adults where the main character is a salmon who is different from the rest of the shoal, very interesting. However, I was drawn in by the title and began to read it. From the title I could make the assumption that the main character would be someone who yearns to go farther than the eye can see, someone who dreams of accomplishing something more in life, someone who would live and could even die by that dream. And yes, this fable deals with those things.

The main character is a silver salmon who shines within, but at the same time is distant from the shoal because of the silver scales on its back. This distance occurs because the silver salmon sticks out among the school and needs protection thus becoming the target of jealousy and complaint. The silver salmon knows he is being protected, but feels frustrated by it. This is because the one thing forbidden to a fish is to dream. In particular, he dreams of going out of the water and looking up at the stars, and of living on land. He then finds out that to be a salmon means to complete life by fighting upstream to lay eggs and die, but he cannot believe that his life has no greater meaning than that of all the other salmon.

In fact, in this tale the salmon’s story holds so much more than that. While on their symbolic journey upstream to the spawning grounds, the silver salmon and the rest of the shoal are faced with danger and challenges lurking in every corner. All of which represent the big questions that determine a person’s true nature, such as “What is life?”, “What is the true nature of existence?”, “What do we want in this world?”, and “How can you reconcile individual desires with society and its indispensability?” This thin book suggests answers to these questions with its figurative illustrations that feel simple and childlike, yet convey the essential truths the book holds. At the start of the story, a hungry eagle appears and circles the shoal of salmon saying that life is a cycle of things achieved and things that fade away—those who eat and those who are eaten. For whether in water or on land, we are all one. The silver salmon who suffered for looking different from the other salmon, uses the power of love as the impetus to overcome pain and disability. When the shoal of salmon comes to an enormous waterfall, the other salmon are scared to jump over it. But the silver salmon tells the rest of them to follow “the salmon’s path,” the way of nature.

Born in 1961, author Ahn Do-hyun has sold a million copies of this book and has said that nature was a big inspiration. It started when he was asked to write an article on salmon fishing for a fishing magazine. After he sent in his piece, he received some enraged letters from readers and started to research salmon. While doing this, he began to see that we humans are just like the hungry eagles, haughty and looking down at the salmon with greedy eyes hoping to catch and eat them. Now he understood! Ahn saw how humans lack respect for nature. It can be said that in this work, Eastern wisdom meets Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation. Glissant understood that there ism much to be learned between humans and nature and emphasized the connection. He believed that anyone and anything can be connected to the background or existence of a another, which we call “interconnectedness.” In this short fable that can be read within an hour, Ahn Do-hyun scales down and explains this concept.

If you are expecting an eminent work from Korea, the seventh largest literature market in the world, you should not put your hopes in this slight book translated into simple German by Hyuk-Sook Kim and Manfred Selzer. Nevertheless this book is a simple yet profound meditation—for readers who do not mistake ‘simple’ (schlicht) for ‘bad’(schlecht). 


 by Claudia Kramatschek
Literary Critic
Jury, Weltempfänger-Liste