Fighting a War, One Meal at a Time: La Langue et le Couteau by Kwon Jeong-hyun
- onSeptember 1, 2019
- Vol.45 Autumn 2019
- byJeffrey Zuckerman
- La Langue et le Couteau (Sword and Tongue)
Tr. Lim Yeong-hee & Lucie Modde 2019298pp.
History is written by the victors, the adage goes. And so history is often told as the story of battles and invasions, of those who won rather than those who surrendered—a long succession of armies and generals and military might.
But history can be told in other ways, and one of those ways—through food, its appreciation, and its incursions—is at the heart of Kwon Jeong-hyun’s ambitious La Langue et le couteau, which won the 2017 Honbul Prize in South Korea. In a note for his French readers, Kwon explains that he chose this particular angle “so as not to slip into the cliché of so many historical novels.” The result, even though it has geopolitical clashes as its backdrop, is far livelier than the typical run of historical fiction, and adds new depth to an often overlooked conflict.
Three protagonists are at the heart of the novel’s nearly three hundred pages: Kilsun, a Korean woman; Chen, a Chinese cook; and Mori, the Japanese commander-in-chief of the Kwantung Army occupying Manchuria in 1945. Mori’s lack of interest in war is a liability that endangers the Japanese: at the time the story is told, the Soviet army is moving in on Manchuria, and it is quite possible that he may simply allow his troops to be captured.
Chen has become a cook in the footsteps of his remarkable father, whose life is brutally cut short in the book’s first pages, and is slowly making his way up the culinary ranks, even as he’s been shaped into a secret agent with the goal of killing Mori. In his attempt to become part of the headquarters’ kitchen, he is seized by military patrollers. Standing in front of Mori, he begs for his life by lying that he simply wants to work there as a cook. Mori, his interest piqued, orders him to prepare a dish with a single ingredient, without any oil or spices. Chen rises to the challenge: he roasts and slices a very specific mushroom, and the resulting preparation is remarkable enough to save Chen’s life and ensure his new job as a chef.
Time passes, more and more dishes are served, Mori’s suspicions soften, and he allows in Kilsun, a former Korean comfort woman who married Chen after being released. As the novel wears on, tensions escalate between the three characters, their respective nationalities establishing an unusual contrast with the oncoming Soviet forces that will eventually seize the territory. But even in the most heightened circumstances, daily life must continue—including, of course, their three meals a day. As Chen cooks elegant and even extravagant dishes for Mori, the commander-in-chief comes to realize how much more he cares about his own tongue than the sword he wields. But will that determination be his downfall?
Kwon’s novel is kaleidoscopic as it brings together different realms, different perspectives, and even different narrators. Interestingly, little effort is made to indicate which of the novel’s narrators is speaking in each chapter—an authorial nod, perhaps, to the fact that even characters hailing from vastly different backgrounds share a fundamental humanity. At moments, the whole thing blurs together—but the clockwork plot is well-engineered enough to keep readers turning the pages to see who will be killed and why. It is delicious to watch the forces of “hard power” clash against each other even as the “soft power” of brilliantly prepared cuisine wages its own battle with wholly different winners and losers.
Literature is so often framed as an opportunity to be an armchair traveler to unfamiliar spaces, and any novel set in the not-so-recent past has to overcome the challenge of making its locale familiar to present-day readers. The strategies chosen by Lim Yeong-hee, who translated the book into French with Lucie Modde’s collaboration, include direct glosses of various phrases, as well as extensive footnotes that assist readers keen on background information. But it is really thanks to Kwon’s lucid style that Western readers have a clear sense of atmosphere: the descriptions he shares, from the welter of General Headquarters to the flavors of the many dishes described and savored across the book’s pages, are such that they transcend language, culture, and history. The resulting style in translation is clear and straightforward without excess of adornment—the perfect way to deliver a riveting story to voracious readers. It is the literary manifestation of the simple mushroom Chen prepared so to seduce Mori: its complexity unfurls within its depths.