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FICTION

[Spanish] The Rules of the Game of Life: Mr. Monorail by Kim Jung Hyuk

  • onOctober 4, 2021
  • Vol.53 Autumn 2021
  • byLawrence Schimel
Mr. Monorail
Tr. Laura Hernández
2021
406pp.

Mr. Monorail is a novel about a game, and game playing in general, and about life as a game, and how games can resemble life and vice versa.

A young man nicknamed Mono (because he can’t hear in stereo, having lost his hearing on one side) invents a tabletop game called Hello, Mr. Monorail that allows players to journey across Europe without leaving home. Mono’s parents are obsessive about game playing and compete against one another to resolve the most minor disagreements, spending hours battling head-to-head to determine who must do a five-minute chore like taking out the trash. They are also sticklers to following the rules, which Mono always wants to rebel against. He is constantly getting roped into playing with them for games that require more than two players, and he always gets solidly and mercilessly trounced by his progenitors.

Therefore, when he invents his own game, one of the rules is that tricks and cheating are an integral part of the game. Mono brings in his slacker friend Woochang to test play the game and together they tweak the rules, fixing its flaws and otherwise pulling together the whole package on the fly, which they decide to release commercially. (Woochang sketches a conventional train to put on the cover despite the game’s name because he doesn’t know what a monorail looks like; their slapdash solution is to just erase one track.)

Hello, Mr. Monorail unexpectedly proves to be wildly popular, selling millions of copies in Korea in just a few months (as well as licenses abroad) and producing bucketloads of cash for its creators.

All of which is almost just a prologue to the rest of the book.

 

Rules for reviewing Mr. Monorail

1. Read the book.

2. No spoilers.

3. Have fun.

 

For a novel ostensibly about a game that requires you to break the rules, the novelist likewise breaks a few of his own in complicity with the reader. Or rather, what seems at first like one kind of book (Mono’s story or even the story of “Hello, Mr. Monorail”) turns out to be another: something more philosophical, and less focused on the stories of the individual characters (or do I mean players?) involved. Despite its considerable length (over four hundred pages in the Spanish translation), it’s an agile read, and whenever it seems like things might get bogged down, there is a twist of fate or even perhaps of genre that raises the stakes of this grand caper and sends the story off in a new direction and keeps the reader turning the pages to find out how the author is going to pull this off.

The novel is Korean on the one hand, but the emphasis is on continental Europe, first within the game invented by Mono and Woochang (neither of whom at the time have been to Europe), and later as the various characters crisscross Europe in a convoluted international chase as if they were actually playing out a live round of Monorail. (Though published in Argentina, the Spanish translation reads like that of Europe, where the action takes place; my one complaint might be that so much is left untranslated in English, especially names, whereas many Korean foods or terms are localized.) Often things are defined by contrast, as when Mono’s suitcase is stolen at the train station in Rome and he compares how onlookers would have reacted back home in Korea versus what happens in Italy.

Rules for reading Mr. Monorail

1. Read the instructions before beginning.

2.
Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

3. Have fun.

 

Agatha Christie once said (and I’m paraphrasing) that humor is national whereas tragedy is universal. (Spelling is also national as she would have written “humour.”)

While in general I think this to be true, Mr. Monorail is also a very funny book whose many different kinds of humor resonate well with readers in translation. There is, on the one hand, a sort of slapstick humor, an almost visual humor that hearkens back to the Keystone Kops or Buster Keaton, with plenty of missed connections, and an air of the caper to the escapades of the book. There is also a gentle satire of family, game-playing, and even religion (sorry for the spoiler) although its bite is almost always softened by more profound observations or lessons.

There are some puns, mostly Anglophone in the original, which are hard to re-create in Spanish and which are left in English in the translation as well. This is perhaps the humor that works least well, especially for a monolingual Spanish reader.

But most of all, there is some very witty dialogue and banter between the characters and even by Mono by himself, who imagines dialogues between players of his game or possible situations he might get into (or out of).

As readers of Mr. Monorail, you can break any rule except that final one.

 

 

Lawrence Schimel
Bilingual (English/Spanish) Poet, Author, Translator