Karma on Nana Plaza: Nana im Morgengrauen by Park Hyoung-su

  • onMarch 26, 2019
  • Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • byKatharina Borchardt
Nana im Morgengrauen (Nana at Dawn)
Tr. Philipp Haas and Sun Young Yun

Leo circles Sukhumvit Soi 16, a narrow street in the red-light district of Bangkok. More precisely, the young twenty-something Korean man circles the house where his lover lives. He had actually been on his way around the world. Thailand was his first stop. But when he meets the prostitute Ploy at a Bangkok noodle snack bar, it’s as if he’s been struck by lightning. The sight of her hits him so hard that he goes looking for her the next day. He finds her in Sukhumvit Soi 16, goes shopping with one of her workmates, has an unfortunate accident in the stairwell requiring both his legs to be put in plaster—and ends up convalescing on a guest mattress in Ploy’s flatshare used for prostitution. He is integrated into the repetitive daily routine of the place—eating, watching TV, smoking yaba, sleeping—none of which is a problem as long as he generously pays for all the shopping. Things carry on like this for half a year. Then Leo’s money is all used up.

During this time, he spends the nights next to Ploy, but doesn’t sleep with her. She brushes Leo off so brusquely the first time he makes a pass at her that he doesn’t try again. Leo’s love for her, however, remains steadfast because of his flash of insight from the very outset that they had been a couple in a previous life: a liaison in ancient India that becomes the cause of everything that unfolds 500 years later in Bangkok in 1994.

Is anything in life coincidental? Or is everything predetermined? Can people change and develop? Or is the present just a variation on what people have already experienced in their former lives? Leo is driven by the great philosophical question of eternal return—and apparently so is the author Park Hyoung-su, born in 1972, who has already published several novels and short stories, and teaches creative writing at Korea University in Seoul.

Leo believes in rebirth: after all, he notices at least one of the previous lives of the people around him in Bangkok. And he immediately sees that some biographical elements are repeated in people’s current lives in a modernized form. But how did these elements come about? Leo, who believes in karma and seems to be quite aimless beyond his desire for Ploy, reflects just as little on this as on how much freedom of choice each new life offers.

The one who thinks a great deal about this, however, is the narrator. He usually stays close to Leo, but also likes to sweep, like a spotlight, over the life stories of secondary characters, which he illuminates with great empathy. Park has developed quite an independent narrative voice for his novel, which steeps the setting of Bangkok’s notorious Nana Plaza in reality, classifying it from a sociological point of view and reflecting on it philosophically. The narrator’s reflections, therefore, have essayistic qualities that make them extremely thought-provoking to read.

Meanwhile, Leo lives his everyday life in Soi 16 and hardly ever leaves the neighborhood, whose weighty center of gravity is a German named Uwe. In a former life, Uwe was an elephant king and is hardly less massive today. Like a friendly Ganesh, he lives on the ground floor of Ploy’s house, filling an entire room over the years, and being popular with everyone. This also includes Leo, who travels between South Korea and Bangkok three times.

Leo’s fourth and final return, which takes place in 2009, appears at the beginning of Park’s novel. In this section, Park skillfully incorporates some elements of Leo’s earlier visits, which are only narrated later. In this way, he succeeds in structuring his novel as a spiral, thus convincingly rendering the cyclical nature of life in a formal way.

However, this life does not really move forward, which is also due to the fact that Leo and Ploy hardly ever talk to each other. Everyday life in the flatshare is so uniform that even daily sex work is called “bumbum,” capturing the repetitive actions with onomatopoeia. Nevertheless, the novel does not become dull at any point, thanks to Park’s linguistic spark and remarkable story-telling skills: a man, for example, is so old that he throws out dust as he walks, or the greasy face of a prostitute shines like an oily village gas station. And when a resident of Soi 16 dies, he may remain as a spirit or a plant for a while before being reborn elsewhere.

Part of this work’s sophistication is that a novel about Bangkok-based prostitution conjures up expectations of a hard-boiled thriller. But Park is smart enough to send, of all people, a thoroughly honest romantic into the criminal heart of the city. His novel oscillates smoothly between wit and melancholy, and achieves a wonderful equilibrium in the midst of its circling movements.

by Katharina Borchardt