The Lives of Others Are Not So Different from Our Own: Nana at Dawn by Park Hyoung-su

  • onOctober 23, 2014
  • Vol.9 Autumn 2010
  • byYi Soo-hyung
Nana at Dawn

The best novels depict the journey the protagonist takes to find their true self. The best novels are also sociological or anthropological studies on the characters and the world in which they live. Good novels, therefore, involve the physical or mental growth of a character, which in turn sheds light on the mysteries, wonders, and wisdom the world has to offer. Park Hyoung-su’s novel, Nana at Dawn, meets all of these criteria.

Nana at Dawn is set in a Thai red-light district, the largest in Thailand and perhaps the world, that formed around a train station called “Nana.” The plot revolves around three generations of prostitutes, Gia, Floy, and (perhaps soon-to-be) Rano, taking the readers to places beyond imagination even for those of us who are accustomed to modern city life. The story creates a Rabelaisian carnival-like atmosphere and evokes the magical realism of South American literature such as One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.

One’s understanding of the world reaches only as far as one’s imagination, and so it goes without saying that the main character who ends up in Thailand en route to Africa has a hard time understanding Nana and its residents. The main character happens upon Floy on a street in Bangkok, falls in love at first sight, follows her home, and lives with Yon, Lisa, and many other prostitutes. The narrator notes, “I thought I’d be able to come pretty close to understanding their lifestyle, though it may be impossible to fully accept it. Looking back, I think I’ve completely failed at that, too. More difficult questions came up with each passing moment.” The main character who believes that he is in love with Floy cannot make sense of her chronic lying and cheating him for his money, and so boards a plane back to Korea in the end, penniless.

But these incomprehensible incidences are upon reconsideration the most fundamental incidences we have left buried under layers of contemporary life in a city we must always return to when the journey is over. After spending six months in Nana confronting the most fundamental questions in life such as “What is life?” the protagonist keeps returning to Nana. As the narrow-minded, petty undergraduate who traveled to Bangkok before graduation grows into a man with a wider perspective, he comes to realize that his life is no different from the lives of the Nana prostitutes. Looking back on his previous life, he says, “It was sad. It was sad that my potential was so apparently finite. But it was on the other hand somewhat comforting to know that we were all murderers once. All of us were once traitors, thieves, and scapegoats. The eternal wind blowing from the windmill of reincarnation evened out the track records of every soul. The only difference is the role we were assigned today, in this life. All of us were once prostitutes.”

If life repeats eternally, we must have lived as traitors, scapegoats, or prostitutes for at least one of those countless lives, and so there is no reason for us to not understand them. If we are ready to understand others, the ability to see our past lives is perhaps unnecessary. It is perhaps the connections we have forged with others in past lives that enable us to understand them.