Lost – and Found: Shoko’s Smile by Choi Eunyoung

  • onJune 24, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byRichard Mansell
La sonrisa de Shoko (Shoko’s Smile)
Tr. Jinjoo Jin

La sonrisa de Shoko is the debut in Spanish (and in any European language) of Choi Eunyoung’s work, translated by Jinjoo Jin and Sebastián Parodi and published in Mexico. The author has won multiple prizes in her home country and her style has been described as ‘distinctly subtle’.

The collection itself comprises two novellas (both around fifty pages long) and five short stories (all twenty to twenty-five pages in length). The novella that gives the collection its title comes first, charting the friendship between two girls, one Korean and one Japanese, that falls apart over time, establishing themes that run through the rest of the collection. Primary amongst these is loss: sometimes this is through death either as a core part of the plot, leading to the birth of a new friendship, or secondary to another, more central loss, such as in ‘Sunae, mi hermanita menor’; at other times the loss is of those still living, and in these respects the work is reminiscent of Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Another device is a repetition of extreme emotions—various words denoting tears, anger and the recurring yet completed and distant past abound, even to the point where the protagonists expound a frustratingly Manichean view of those around them. Occasionally this is recognised as selfish, although the protagonists do not ask for forgiveness; Soun in ‘El canto que vino de lejos’ tempers her selfishness by asking us also to pity her concomitant self-loathing. What is deeply moving about this collection is the protagonists and characters who are unable to come to terms with the world as it is, and for them there appears to be no way out. Depression, whether named or implied, is a recurrent theme through all stories in the collection, and although sensitively dealt with, the theme still causes this reader at least to want to intervene in some way, to say ‘Can’t you see that you are making things worse?’, such as the unfurling of events in ‘Hanji y yo’. More than once there is an implication or explicit statement that some souls are too sensitive for this world.

Such dualisms emerge in other guises too. Whereas sometimes the reasons for loss are unknown (or wilfully ignored and not communicated to us, as we assume in ‘Hanji y yo’), there are others where the point of rupture is all too blatant; in ‘Xin chào, Xin chào’, the adolescent protagonist wants to join in with an adult conversation between her Korean parents and their Vietnamese friends by repeating a ‘truth’ she believes from her Korean schooling (revealed to be a lie) even though they are now all in Germany. The results are disastrous, the friendship never recovers, and everybody ends up isolated. Indeed, the theme of cultural conflict and shock is frequent yet never dealt with gratuitously, and is an intriguing universal in the collection. Sometimes this is linguistic (overtly so in ‘Hanji y yo’) and sometimes physical (the arm-holding episode in ‘La sonrisa de Shoko’). Racism rears its head on occasions: the narrators, first person and Korean throughout, suffer at times from the gaze of others. There is also judgment bubbling under the surface from Koreans. Many characters struggle to break free from the expectations of how a life should be lived, especially through their twenties, and when they fight against such suppositions, the resulting lack of satisfaction finds no resolution. There is a judgment of others from the protagonists too: for example, in different stories Thuy and Hanji are both described as (seemingly) getting along with everyone, as opposed to the more introverted commentators, who seem somewhat judgmental in their statements. There are also comparisons of the young and old, Korea and elsewhere (many stories are set in other countries), the mundane and the profound (there is an easy switch between the two), North and South Korea (such as in ‘Sunae, mi hermanita menor’, referring to the 1975 purge) and even the real and the magical.

Despite the cultural load, personally I found the translators’ notes frustrating and unnecessary – they could be dispensed with in most cases by simply strategically placing a year, or a Korean character, in the text. For the most part they still leave the reader needing to conduct further research to understand the context, or feeling as though there is too much detail for the simple progression of plot.

by Richard Mansell
Senior Lecturer in Translation, University of Exeter

Author's Profile

Choi Eunyoung has authored the short story collections Shoko’s Smile and Someone Harmless to Me. She has received the Writer’s World New Writer Award, the Heo Gyun Literary Award, the Kim Jun-sung Literary Award, and the Young Writers’ Award.