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FICTION

In Loneliness Begin Responsibilities: World’s End Girlfriend by Kim Yeonsu

  • onSeptember 4, 2019
  • Vol.45 Autumn 2019
  • byBonnie Huie
世界盡頭我的女友 (World’s End Girlfriend)
Tr. Hu Szu Ting
2019
265pp.

 

World’s End Girlfriend could be billed as a prescription for an increasingly lonely modern world. It’s a book with the glossiness of a pill and an antidote within. Composed of nine short stories published in the original Korean in 2009, the collection offers an introduction to the work of Kim Yeonsu through universalist motifs such as the search for human connection—a particularly existentialist trope amid the widespread social problem of loneliness and alienation in the post-Confucian sphere. These stories, which spotlight perceived boundaries in a contemporary world that is both globalized and stratified, could easily be consumed for their humor and grace alone, but digestion requires further effort: the reader is transported to uncomfortable liminal spaces, as if to suggest that conscientious literature must rise to the occasion in a pluralistic age. First and foremost, this means illustrating the forces, internal and external, behind life’s gradual processes of frustration.

Perhaps the most accessible work, “Happy New Year to Everyone” is dedicated to Raymond Carver, whose “Cathedral” Kim had been translating into Korean. (Incidentally, Kim isn’t the only successful author in the region to moonlight as a translator of Carver; his Japanese counterpart is Haruki Murakami.) On New Year’s Eve, a Korean husband and wife host the wife’s friend, a Sikh factory worker who hails from Punjab (though, it is noted, he never identifies as a Punjabi) and speaks English but very little Korean. The wife, on other hand, speaks very little English, leaving her husband mystified as to the development of their friendship. As the two friends turn to the task of tuning a secondhand piano that the husband has brought home—mainly because it was free and its owner, a tearful old man on his deathbed, has been giving away his possessions to strangers—the husband silently reflects on the fact that he has no idea what part of India Punjab is even in, admitting that in his mind, the entity is clumped together in one indiscernible mass, “like a beard.” When the friend asks where the piano came from, the husband fumbles and offers a factual and emotionally opaque account in childlike stanzas before he is forced to come to terms with the fundamental dynamic of exchanges in all relationships. The wife’s explanation is simple: “If you want to talk to each other, then you’re friends.”

To the delight of language lovers, “Happy New Year to Everyone” is one of several stories to offer up the protagonist’s analysis of their linguistic reality and to illuminate the rites by which social bonds are created. The protagonist of “The Time When We Were All Thirty” is a woman who plans her thirtieth birthday a full three years in advance, compulsively researching and saving money in Type-A fashion for a trip abroad to a city in New Jersey, a Peter Handke-inspired destination where she envisions a celebratory first taste of a more adult life stage in the form of a romantic dinner with the man who has been her boyfriend since their college years. But those plans are dashed when the boyfriend, a financially struggling film production assistant, abandons the dreams of his youth for the servile comfort of becoming a taxi driver, creating an irreparable rift between them. When the big day arrives, she is saved from a looming void when a family obligation is coldly thrust upon her, and she is asked to entertain an unfamiliar second cousin from Osaka, who is in Seoul with his wife for their honeymoon. After she initially bristles at his accent, colorful vocabulary, and violations of social protocol, a night of drinking and bonding ensues.

In many of these stories, true lived experience results from a breach of some sort. Kim points to examples from the realm of science, where the bounds of our knowledge are openly accepted as mutable. The titular story, “World’s End Girlfriend,” tells of a poem about an impossible love anonymously hung on a public bulletin board. Its author’s imagined paradise is only to be found at the so-called world’s end at the foot of a Metasequoia, one of a genus of trees found as a fossil and believed to be extinct until 1941, when a living specimen was unexpectedly discovered in China. Three decades later, entire rows of the trees were planted along a road in Damyang, South Korea. A symbol of expectations defied, the tree is a lasting reminder of what can happen when you’re willing to meet someone halfway.

 

by Bonnie Huie
Writer, Translator
Notes of a Crocodile (2017) by Qiu Miaojin
Winner, 2018 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize

Author's Profile

Kim Yeonsu is a novelist. Kim debuted in 1993 by publishing a poem in Writer’s World. He published the novels Walking While Pointing to the MaskGoodbye Mr. Yi Sang, Route 7The Night Is Singing, and Wonderboy and the short story collections I Am a Ghost WriterTwenty, and World's End Girlfriend. Kim has received a number of literary awards, including the Daesan Literary Award and Yi Sang Literary Award.