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FICTION

We Are Not Alone: Wonderboy by Kim Yeonsu

  • onJanuary 4, 2017
  • Vol.34 Winter 2016
  • byKang Shinja
ワンダーボーイ (Wonderboy)
Tr. Kim Huna
2016
367pp.

On the first page of Kim Yeonsu’s Wonderboy, the narrator, Jeong-hun, remembers the moment all the stars in space stopped moving. A little later, he wonders just how many stars there are out there. He tells us that no matter who you are, there will be a moment when all the stars in the universe stop moving for you. The moment you die. At that moment, every single star in the universe pauses to look down on a lone, dying human. No matter how trivial your life or how pathetic your death, one hundred billion stars will pour their light down on you.

This is the story of the memories of all the living and dead who experienced a certain past. Those memories offer us a prayer for tomorrow and a guiding light. This is what Wonderboy passes along to us.

The story begins in Seoul in 1984. This setting is certainly symbolic. It’s as if our narrator, Jeong-hun, is thrown suddenly into Orwell’s dystopia. It all begins when his father’s truck crashes into an oncoming car. Jeong-hun, who was in the passenger seat at the time, not only loses his father, his only blood relative, but is also seriously injured. He falls into a coma. And what happens when he wakes up? He can read people’s minds. The world around him is upended, and he comes to be known as “Wonderboy.”

His father’s death, which was nothing more than the result of bad luck, is magnificently exploited for political purposes. On top of that, those in power try to use Jeong-hun for their own gain. Because he can read people’s minds, he’s forced to listen to the desperate, silent cries of people being tortured. How terrifying, sad, lonely, and painful must it be for him to see the happy memories that those tormented to death recall in their final moments? What is Jeong-hun to do? At the time he’s only fifteen.

Jeong-hun eventually flees from the authorities, and the story becomes one of his wandering and growth. The story’s background is composed of unforgettable days filled with pain—the division of the Korean peninsula; the National Federation of Democratic Youth and Students Incident of 1974; the Gwangju Uprising of 1980; the June Struggle of 1987—incidents in which Korean citizens and youth fought against military rule. These are memories still alive in Korea even in late 2016, as tremendous numbers of citizens march in the streets, demanding the resignation of their president. While always narrated with a gentle touch, Wonderboy is a story that feels truly real.

If I can add one more comment about the narration, it would be that it somehow reminds me of Douglas Adams’s sci-fi classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Maybe it’s because a large part of the story revolves around the grand question of our relation to Earth and space. Maybe it’s because the narrator constantly mentions a dolphin show. In any case, like The Guide, Wonderboy is not only comical, but also manages to be deeply moving.

After fleeing from those trying to use him, the narrator finds his way to many lost memories. There he discovers secrets about his father and the mother whose face he’s never seen. Around him are people who live as though even the most modest of lives are precious. The narrator’s (and the author, Kim Yeonsu’s) warm gaze rests on each of them in turn.

When the narrator thinks of people, he thinks of the universe. He repeatedly thinks of the stars. There are three hundred million heavenly bodies in the Milky Way. Out of all of them, we have only confirmed the presence of life on one. Our Earth. One hundred and six billion, five hundred million people have lived on this lonely planet. A single life of one hundred and six billion, five hundred million, on a single planet out of three hundred billion celestial bodies. Yes, each human life is tiny, but each of us is special.

 

Our narrator looks up at the Milky Way and ponders. It’s important to breathe slowly, he tells himself. You must be true to yourself. To find the right answer, you must ask the right question. And he asks questions as well. Like: “Why is the night so dark, even though there are so many stars in the galaxy?”

Will Wonderboy’s questions and experiences lead him from lies to the truth, from darkness to light, from loneliness to love? Will he show us the reason why our nights are so dark? Will his dreams eventually become reality? Will his experiences illuminate his, and our, dark nights? Even we will not forget, must not forget, the words of those Korean college students from the summer of 1987, those words which Wonderboy fixes in his mind.

 “This world in which we live may become something completely different, but it will not return to the past again. If someone tries to move us backwards, we will not sit by quietly. We will do whatever we can. We will not be silent. We are not alone.” 

 

by Kang Shinja
Literary Critic

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.