Questioning the New Era: Pavane for a Dead Princess by Park Min-gyu
- onNovember 16, 2014
- Vol.25 Autumn 2014
- byWest Camel
- Pavane for a Dead Princess
Tr. Amber Hyun Jung Kim 2014208pp.
The premise of Park Min-gyu’s 2009 novel—now appearing for the first time in English in Amber Hyun Jung Kim’s excellent translation—is apparently simple: a young writer, a lost soul, whose film-star father has abandoned him and his mother, falls in love with the ugliest girl he has ever seen.
For those familiar with Park’s work, this will seem like standard fare. Known as a literary refusnik, it is only natural that the story of a love affair in which the heroine is hideous should flow from Park Min-gyu’s pen.
But Pavane for a Dead Princess is more than simply an enfant terrible kicking against the pricks. From the outset, Park creates interest. What about this girl overrides her unattractive qualities? What about this young man draws him to someone so spurned by the rest of the world?
As this apparently conventional love story about unconventional people continues, the reader is then prompted to ask: Why am I rooting for the success of this affair; and why does this poignant tale have such an air of tragedy about it?
Looking towards the periphery of the novel—at the frame, the supporting characters, and the setting—begins to answer these questions.
The novel is told by the young man in retrospect; and, now middle-aged, he begins his story with the ill-matched pair’s parting scene. The reader therefore experiences their story in the knowledge that it will end in sadness, but also in the hope that there will be some final reversal of this expectation. By skillfully manipulating our emotions, Park both creates narrative drive and engenders audience sympathy for his characters.
Yet, despite bringing the reader so close to these principal actors, Park never names them. The only time the reader is even close to discovering what the narrator is called, is when another, this time very pretty girl, calls him by the wrong name. The narrator, of course, corrects her, without divulging his real name to the reader.
It is not until after the book’s tragic climax that the reasons for this anonymity begin to become clear. Key to this unravelling is the main supporting character, Yohan. The narrator’s closest friend, he is the novel’s conscience, its chorus, its guiding force, and ultimately its deus ex machina.
It is in the narrator’s conversations with Yohan that Park lays out the substance of his work, and in which that other instructive element of Pavane—setting—most obviously comes into play.
All the main characters work in a department store, located in the Seoul of the 1980s. This was a time, vividly recorded by Park, when South Korea’s capitalist motor was running at full power, bringing to its population the disposable income and consumerism previously only seen in the West and Japan. Beauty, clothes, make-up, celebrity, superficiality, and, crucially, nameless homogeneity, are all imported along with the Western music that pervades novel. The palaces of old Seoul, visited by the unnamed pair, are deserted, the abodes, one could say, of a dead princess.
Yohan expounds on the failings of this new society, but suggests to the hero that “We have to get used to it.” Yet it is Yohan’s inability to face this new era that instigates the novel’s central crisis and, perhaps, the final surprise that turns the whole tale on its head.
For in Pavane, Park Min-gyu not only defies literary convention, he also sets up reader expectations only to pull them down. Not for the sake of pure iconoclasm, but to question the obsessions of his native Korea, and, indeed, of the capitalist world as a whole.
by West Camel
Editor, Dalkey Archive Press
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).