Sonatina for an Apocalypse: Ping Pong by Park Min-gyu

  • onMarch 28, 2017
  • Vol.35 Spring 2017
  • byJacques Debs
Ping Pong
Tr. Niky Guillon and Kim Inyoung

Two schoolboys are tormented, hazed by a bunch of louts working, in typical cowardly fashion, as a group. Our hero is nicknamed Nail because of the number of times he’s been struck, his companion Moai because his excessively large head evokes an Easter Island statue. Together, they must survive in the insubstantial, dull setting of their neighborhood in a South Korean town. They take refuge from their tormentors in a vacant lot, in the middle of which a ping-pong table asserts its presence. The French former world champion, Sécretin, introduces them to the subtleties of this game, which he believes somehow to lay at the origin of the world. After numerous setbacks our two schoolboys must play an epic game against opponents from the planet Ping Pong, which has become embedded in their own. The fate of humanity depends on the outcome of the match. Our two heroes are allowed to enlist the aid of famous figures; Nail chooses the mountaineer Reinhold Messner, while Moai plumps for Malcolm X.

So begins an epic match on which everyone’s fate depends.

A muted, almost characterless South Korea forms the backdrop for a sketch that could have been anodyne, banal even, but which Park Min-gyu turns into a tragicomic farce. Park takes this sordid social reality and, through his alchemic style, purifies it to leave us with the quintessence of the human soul in its barest form. Park’s writing is a world unto itself—an entelechy with its own codes, rules, ciphers, and magic keys. We move through this startling new universe, seen through the eyes of the soul, via the “I” of the hero, and cross the multiple dimensions of unknown continents. Worlds are no longer clearly separated; an abrupt change of scene may take us from Nail’s miserable neighborhood to the outer limits of the cosmos, or from the local grocery to the abyssal plains of a celestial ocean. Park plays with the limits of our perception, taking us on a voyage through the stars where Homeric twists alternate with moments of untold and unexpected tenderness.

Ping Pong presents a world of overlapping narratives that we are free to discover, provided that we return to the condition of stardust waiting to be born in the womb of the first human being. Our two heroes are constantly brought into contact with Genesis, the Apocalypse, and all the catastrophes in between. They are the dragons and archangels who carry, on their tails and wings, the torments and hopes of a world wracked by crime, a primitive lifeform condemned to monstrosity despite its capacity for brilliance. They are the champions in an eschatological combat, a final battle in which we are at once the gladiators, the spectators and the gods weeping over the forlorn human race.

Through his highly inventive style, where echoes of James Joyce mingle with those of San-Antonio and Albert Camus, Park not only shows us the Apocalypse, but also dubs us, almost physically, the disheveled knights of this adventure. Like some ecstatic Dürer, we hold the world in our hands and observe the depths of our souls, alarmed and fascinated by what we see.

Devour Ping Pong, and let Park Min-gyu turn you into a tiny “ball of sun” capable of tearing through our planet. Wallow in the weakness of the poor and defenseless; escape from reality via the books of John Mason. Dream, like Nail, of reassuring banality; aspire only to be an invisible shadow, ensconced like a tiny grain of sand in the great wall of existence. Whatever your choice, Park’s fractured style, peppered with English words and illustrated with his own drawings, will take you beyond the limits of narrative. His writing is devious, being both blunt and mysterious. It will bamboozle you with its apparent simplicity, but once tamed will show you the improbable colors of its soaring heights. Park will take you to the limits of what is bearable, leaving you to glimpse the glowing edges of your darkest fantasies or fall into the abyss of your own fears.

Only great writers are able to engage in this kind of battle with the angels of death and emerge from the fray—shattered, stunned, eviscerated, yet still pulsing with a furious vital energy. 


by Jacques Debs
Filmmaker and writer

Author's Profile

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).