Alienation Without Pity: No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin
- onNovember 15, 2014
- Vol.24 Summer 2014
- byPhilip Gowman
- No One Writes Back
Tr. Jung Yewon 2013199pp.
I can’t remember having cried at the end of a novel before, particularly one in which nothing much happens.
No One Writes Back is a beautiful gem that works its slow magic on you over the course of 152 numbered paragraphs of which the shortest is only three words, at least in the English translation. The blurb on the back of the book rather undersells it, pitching Jang’s writing as “…this sly update of the picaresque novel.” I had to look up what a picaresque novel was, and still have no idea why it might need a sly update.
This novel can in fact easily stand on its own without being put in a particular literary context. And unusually for many Korean novels and short stories that have made it into an English translation, No One Writes Back can speak to a world audience without the need for a Korean primer. There are only two terms, White Day and Chuseok, that might lead a person with limited contact with Korean culture to head for a search engine, but both words and their significance are perfectly well explained on Wikipedia, and maybe these days do not need a footnote anyway. Otherwise, this poignant novel, in which nothing much happens but which talks about human communication and family relationships, speaks to people regardless of language and nationality. It is a fine choice to be included in Dalkey Archive’s first set of translations in their Library of Korean Literature. It deserves to stand well on its own as a novel, not as something to be studied as world literature.
The novel is a road trip: a man, Jihun, and his dog, Wajo, travel from motel to motel, the direction determined largely by whichever way the blind dog feels like walking when they set off in the morning. Along the way they meet a woman, an ex-girlfriend, and many strangers. Any time Jihun befriends a stranger he asks them for their address so that he can write to them. And if he is given their address, he gives the stranger a number by which he will refer to them, filing them away in his mind together with details of their lives. Each day in his motel room he writes a letter to one of the people he has met on his three-year journey, setting out his thoughts and experiences of the previous day.
We never get to read any of the letters Jihun writes to the strangers, but during the time we share with him we do get to read four letters to his family – his mother, father, brother, and sister – which cast light on his family history and to a certain extent explain why he decided to go on this aimless journey. We also learn more about Jihun as he gradually befriends a novelist – known only as “the woman” or “751” – with whom much of the journey is spent. We long for the two people to form a more permanent connection, and speculate as to whether 751, who is writing a book as she accompanies him, has actually written the book we are reading.
The pacing is leisurely, congenial, and pleasant, and as Jihun returns home we get a revelation and a satisfying resolution, which makes you want to read the book all over again and tell everyone else to read it too.
by Philip Gowman
London Korean Links