An Intimate Quest for a Memorable Woman: My Sister, Bongsoon by Gong Ji-Young
- onMarch 22, 2018
- Vol.39 Spring 2018
- byFlorence Noiville
- Ma très chère grande soeur (My Sister, Bongsoon)
Tr. Lim Yeong-hee & Stéphanie Follebouckt 2018194pp.
The 2016 Salon du Livre in Paris gave French readers the chance to learn more about the literature of the guest of honor, South Korea. This included not just the major names of the twentieth century, but also those of more recent generations. One such discovery was novelist Gong Ji-Young, two of whose works, Our Happy Time and Jacob’s Ladder, had already been translated into French by the publisher Philippe Picquier. This remarkable and subtle writer now returns with a new novel, My Sister, Bongsoon.
Our destination is Seoul. But the journey will above all be an internal one: a painstaking descent into the memories of the young narrator, Jjang-a, who invites us to join her on an intimate quest for a memorable woman named Bongsoon.
At the beginning of the novel, Jjang-a learns from her mother that Bongsoon has disappeared. At the age of almost fifty? Leaving four children behind? Why has she left? In order to find Bongsoon, Jjang-a decides to recount her own life from the beginning. It is as though she needs to recapitulate her own story in order to understand that of this slightly peculiar “older sister.”
That story begins at birth, when Jjang-a was a baby “as red as an apple.” Bongsoon was already with her then. At the age of twelve, she had run away a number of times, seeking to escape poverty, starvation, beatings, and humiliations. She found refuge in Jjang-a’s family where she looked after the baby girl like her own little sister, carrying her on her back wherever she went, protecting her, telling her scary stories about pots of boiling water and rabbit-skin sellers.
However, in Jjang-a’s house, Bongsoon is never considered a member of the family. Nor is she treated entirely as a nanny. As a result of this in-between status, Jjang-a gains access to another world, that of cigarettes and boys, and an awareness of the reality around her. Distinctions of class. The reasons for being accepted or rejected by a group. The nature of attachment, too (here, a physical, almost animal closeness). A powerful connection, evoked by the smell of Bongsoon and the icy sweat forming on her back.
But one day, all this tenderness will evaporate. Jjang-a’s mother’s diamond ring has disappeared. And Bongsoon is suspected—wrongly—of stealing it. The event marks the end of their harmonious life together. Bongsoon runs away. Meanwhile, Jjang-a begins her bitter immersion in the world of adults, where the activities on offer include learning to lie, learning about middle-class selfishness, and gaining an understanding of the fundamental ambiguity of people.
All this because of a ring! The plot is thin on the ground, almost naively so, at least until the wonderful final denouement in the Seoul metro, when Jjang-a is thirty-six years old. But there is a clear intention behind this stylized approach. Gong keeps her writing simple, like the fairy tales that Jjang-a reads as a little girl and which the author occasionally brings into dialogue with the story. To describe the way a child’s conscience forms between birth and the age of six, Gong takes the risk of seeking to describe the indescribable: the mass of tiny details we are struck by in our earliest years and which remain lodged in our memory forever. Why those details and not others? A difficult question. They are minor details—the death of a dog after eating rat poison on the night of a storm, Bongsoon’s expression when she leaves the house with her baby, or again during a chance encounter, thirty years later, in a metro carriage in Seoul.
It is always risky to discuss the trivial: these fragments of reality can seem so fragile with hindsight, so insignificant once expressed in words. To prise out their true meaning and set them in their rightful place, like the diamond on the lost ring, takes the talent of Nathalie Sarraute in Childhood or, indeed, the sensitivity of Gong Ji-Young in My Sister, Bongsoon. Hers is the kind of deeply sincere writing so rare that, when we do encounter it, we can only rejoice.
by Florence Noiville
Foreign Fiction Editor, Le Monde
Author, A Cage in Search of a Bird