Getting Lost Means Finding One’s Way: Vaseline-Buddha by Jung Young Moon

  • onJuly 16, 2015
  • Vol.28 Summer 2015
  • byJan Dirks
Tr. Jan Dirks

Indeed, most readers will find Vaseline- Buddha hard to read: an endless, unfiltered flow of thoughts and memories, strange, ordinary, complicated, simple, philosophical, trivial. After all, that is exactly what most of our thoughts are like—long-winded sentences, a jungle of words, the more complex the grammar, the less clear the meaning—no storyline, no noteworthy characters, no emotional development. And after fifty pages at most, when the author-narrator is still worrying about how he could begin this novel in an appropriate manner, fans of easy-reading literature will have already thrown in the towel.

After explaining explicitly to the reader what kind of text he wants to write: “something that is not even anything, or something that is not even not anything,” and therefore doing his very best to muddle and bungle everything that could possibly develop into a cohesive story, the middle-aged, male, first-person narrator who is constantly suffering from insomnia and vertigo, takes us on an erratic journey through real, unreal, and surreal geographical and mental spaces.

In Nepal, he enjoys an apple, completely calm, while his plane almost crashes into the mountains. In a small provincial town in France, he sees an inflatable rubber dolphin drifting by on the river. In Budapest, he discovers a set of false teeth on a snow-covered bench near the Royal Palace. In Paris, he desperately tries to ignore the omnipresent Eiffel Tower. In New York, he spends most of his time watching TV in his hotel room. In Venice, on the mist-shrouded Piazza San Marco, he catches sight of a little girl holding a blue balloon in her hand. In Amsterdam, he meets a stoned-looking woman with spinach between her teeth. In Berlin, he watches a young woman jumping up and down on a trampoline in a park at midnight. Nothing really spectacular, but everything slightly odd, one might think.

Despite of, no, thanks to the strict rejection of conventional narrative patterns, Vaseline-Buddha is truly meaningful literature. What makes this novel so fascinating is its permanent liminality and ambiguity: it is exactly the completely obvious which remains ultimately cryptic; it is exactly the linguistic hyper-precision which leads to confusion; it is exactly the “boring” stuff which becomes thrilling at another level; and it is exactly the humorous, ironic attitude of the author-narrator which proves his deep seriousness.

If we trust in the benevolence of author Jung Young Moon, there are many possible readings of this novel: we can read it from the perspective of depth psychology, existentialism, deconstruction, or Zen Buddhism. But there is never the need to interpret or understand anything. This text does not want to be studied, it wants to be experienced. For Jung, looking for truth does not mean creating order. It means facing the inevitable, never-ending chaos of mind. In this sense, he invites us to join his open meditation: we don’t have access to anything outside the human mind, so let’s just watch the human mind as it is. The chaos will remain, but the inner eye will become clear. 


by Jan Dirks


Author's Profile

Jung Young Moon graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in psychology. He made his literary debut in 1996 with the novel A Man Who Barely Exists. Among his works, Vaseline Buddha, A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories, A Chain of Dark Tales, and A Contrived World have appeared in English. He has won the Dongsuh Literary Award, the HMS (Hahn Moo-Sook) Literary Award, the Dongin Literary Award, and the Daesan Literary Award. He has participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2005. Jung is also an accomplished translator who has translated more than fifty books from English into Korean, including works by John Fowles, Raymond Carver, and Germaine Greer.