The Little Man and His Large Fridge: Castella by Park Min-gyu
- onSeptember 1, 2019
- Vol.45 Autumn 2019
- byVictor Sonkin
Tr. Evgenii Vyskrebentcev 2019224pp.
Literary fiction published and read in Russia is quite different in its structure from other European book industries. Most of the fiction—the exact numbers are not always easy to pinpoint, but it is certainly a good deal over 50 percent—is translated from other languages, and among those publications the overwhelming majority are translations from English. Translations from other European languages are much less noticeable, and Asian literatures, including East Asia, are still more exotic.
Back in Soviet times, a number of Asian authors seeped through the sieve of Communist censorship, resulting in the popularity of a number of contemporary Japanese and, to a lesser extent, Chinese writers. Korean literature, however, was mostly perceived as a venerable literary tradition, which included, for example, the translation of a volume of classical Korean poetry by the famous poet Anna Akhmatova (1958). Post-Soviet times saw the publication of volumes of classical Korean prose and poetry, most of them by the Hyperion publishing house.
The Russian culture of today comes into a much closer contact with the world of Korea than before (which is partially supported by the large Korean community in former Soviet republics). Fancy Korean restaurants and fast-food joints appear in large Russian cities. The international success of the Korean film industry (from action movies to the 2019 Cannes winner, Parasite) is widely noticeable in Russia. However, against this favorable background, the awareness of Korean literature among Russian readers remains low.
It is a welcome sign, then, that following its tradition of introducing Russian readers to Korean literature, Hyperion publishing house has this year issued the book Castella by Park Min-gyu in Evgenii Vyskrebentcev’s translation, supported by LTI Korea. The time which separates the Russian reader from the date of the original publication is long enough— Castella was published in South Korea in 2005— especially in today’s environment of ultra-rapid changes. However, it is still perceivably modern and contemporary. What, then, are the common notions that might make those texts interesting and vivid for the Russian reader, separated from Korean culture and literature by a large civilizational divide and relative ignorance of the nation’s literature or history?
These short stories do not strike the Russian reader as excessively exotic or strange, because they merge two cultural trends that are deeply ensconced in Russian culture. One of them is general: Park Min-gyu’s stories are comfortably within the tradition of post-modern writing, or “magical realism,” which is well known to Russian readers; in Soviet times, it was perceived through the works of Jorge Luis Borges from Argentina or Gabriel García Márquez from Colombia, and in post-Soviet times through the novels of Milorad Pavić from Serbia and in a number of original Russian works which followed the same tradition. For that reason, the easy appearance of speaking raccoons and giraffes, or aliens and giant squids, does not strike the reader as incoherent or unusual; this is the device we have been trained to appreciate. Formal experiments are also easy to relate to; the Russian reader should not be too surprised by blurring the line between prose and poetry, or breaking certain sentences with sporadic point’s comission .
The other trend is perhaps even closer to the deep underground current of Russian literature. In most of Park Min-gyu’s stories, the principal character is an ordinary young man, studying somewhere, trying to find the trajectory of his life. Everything about his life is commonplace: his work, his studies. He is struggling against the hostile world but, in spite of the hindrances, persevering in his attempts to find his own way. This is probably the most cherished tradition of Russian literature, personified in the central figure of the “little man.”
On the one hand, this combination of an ordinary, struggling young character and a magical device (such as the fridge in “Castella”) which encompasses the whole world and ultimately defines its future destiny, is unusual and exotic. On the other hand, it is quite common—almost to the point of being natural—for Russian literature. A story of that kind, as well as some other stories in the collection, could have been written by a Russian author. It is not that difficult to imagine the adventures of a rogue refrigerator trying to stay on the top of world affairs in a Russian story.
Park Min-gyu debuted in 2003 with two widely-acclaimed novels: The Sammi Superstar’s Last Fan Club and Legend of Earth’s Heroes. He has authored the short story collections Castella and Double, and the novels Ping Pong and Pavane for a Dead Princess. His books in translation include Pavane for a Dead Princess (Dalkey Archive, 2014), Pavane pour une infante défunte (Decrescenzo éditeurs, 2014), and Ping-Pong (Editions Intervalles, 2016).