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FICTION

My Aunt the Astronaut: Un balcon sur la lune by Chung Han-Ah

  • onJune 21, 2018
  • Vol.40 Summer 2018
  • byClaire Julliard
Un balcon sur la lune (A Sea on the Moon)
Tr. Park Mihwi & Véronique Cavallasca
2017
144pp.

It is always exciting to discover the world of a new author, especially one as original and unusual as that of Chung Han-Ah. Un balcon sur la lune is the kind of novel you want to speed through, and yet its subtle details are worth lingering over. The tone is carefree, poetic, though it deals with a serious subject: the difficulty of finding one’s place in the world.

Eun-mi, the heroine, will soon be twenty-seven. She is single and struggling to gain a foothold in the world of work. Her attempts to pass a journalism examination are fruitless. Her goals begin to seem unattainable. Wanting to bring this seemingly preordained string of failures and humiliations to an end, she lists various methods of suicide in her notebook. Swallowing pills seems to offer the best escape, allowing her to slip away “while fast asleep.” But no sooner has she decided on this course of action than her life dramatically begins to change and move in a new direction. While she is out browsing pharmacies for the lethal pills, her grandmother, the only one to really understand her, reads her notebook. Shocked, she resolves to finally tell Eun-mi something she has been hiding for a long time. The secret concerns Sun-i, Eun-mi’s aunt, who has been absent for fifteen years. All this time, the grandmother has been receiving dozens of letters from her without telling anyone. She reveals to the heroine that Sun-i is a NASA astronaut on a secret space mission. By way of an apology, the grandmother offers to pay for her granddaughter to visit the United States. Eun-mi is delighted at the prospect of leaving the family home and being reunited with her aunt. Unlike her parents, this “fairy godmother” always thought of her as someone special, calling her “Princess Pencil” because of her passion for writing. Eun-mi sets off by airplane with Min, her childhood friend, who is navigating his own existential crisis: he is determined to have an operation to become the woman he feels himself to be and sees America as a sort of theme park for sexual minorities.

In Florida, Eun-mi’s reunion with Sun-i turns out to be filled with surprise. The heroine gets to know her aunt and learns about her remarkable journey—and also her lies. The gulf between imagination and reality is shown to be as wide as the distance between the Earth and the moon. Interspersed with Sun-i’s letters describing her experiences on board the shuttle, the novel is metaphorical. Just like the aunt’s voyage into space, Eun-mi and Min’s journey symbolizes the liberating quest for another self. Written in sparse yet otherworldly prose, well served by an accurate and attentive translation, in one sense this is a traditional coming-of-age story. But Un balcon sur la lune manages to invigorate the genre by combining the classic motif of an identity quest with the very contemporary issues of feminism, transgenderism, and Mars exploration. The characters are remarkable. Seemingly made of “such stuff as dreams are made on,” as Shakespeare put it, the characters nonetheless grapple with these contemporary issues. During her journey, Eun-mi wonders about her real calling, while Min questions his fundamental nature. Their discovery of the world and its realities is somewhat abrupt—like a sudden landing after a long time spent in orbit. The reader, too, leaves behind the gentle sensations of weightlessness and floating as they come back down to Earth. The appeal of the novel lies precisely in this contrast between a mundane everyday existence—here, a middle-class family with all its difficulties and ambiguities—and the thrilling experience of space as brilliantly evoked by the aunt. We learn that astronauts, despite their apprehension about leaving Earth and the ordeals they must undergo, never hesitate to set off on their next mission. As Sun-i explains, “This insatiable curiosity for the unknown, this appetite for knowledge which drives us to put our lives at such tremendous risk” characterizes what it means to be human. This wild hope, in which we can change the course of life and transcend banality, runs throughout the text and imbues it with a degree of optimism. And yet the conclusion is bittersweet. Reality only rarely yields to our desires. Sometimes it is only by dreaming that we can navigate the vicissitudes of life. 

 

by Claire Julliard
Author, Les Hors-Venus (2016)
Literary Critic, L’Obs