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FICTION

[Review] The Talking Cure: Stories Told to the Moon by Shin Kyung-sook

  • onMarch 13, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byIlona Yazhbin Chavasse
Истории, рассказанные Луне (Stories Told to the Moon)
Tr. Jeong In Soon
2020
224pp.

Told mostly to the moon, but also in the form of letters and parable-like stories, the relatively short pieces in Stories, Told to the Moon (Istorii, rasskazannyye Lune) from the author of the international bestseller Please Look After Mom deal with everyday lives illuminated by moments of quiet revelation.

Filial responsibility and filial guilt loom large over these tales as does a sense of alienation and separateness from other people, even those that may be closest of all. A daughter is prompted to really see, for the first time, the scale of her mother’s uncomplaining love and sacrifice. Another finds it easier and more rewarding to fill the void left in her mother’s life after the emigration of a more dutiful sister, though the reader is left with a sense of both relief and unease. During a multi-generational encounter, a young mother encounters two grannies on a train who, while acknowledging the ingratitude and inattentiveness of their children, nevertheless agree that they are committed to heavy lifting on their children’s behalf and would not have it any other way. Fathers are mostly represented by their absence – their participation in child-rearing mostly confined to in extremis situations. In “Someone Else’s Dream”, a father roped in to say the final word on a teenager’s inadvisable new hobby quickly discovers how little he really knows about her.

There are narrative flips and changes of angle – the speaker is not always the story’s eventual protagonist, and several stories carry a last-minute twist. In “Espresso”, the story of a man whose wife won’t let him come to the café alone gets an ending that puts matters in a different light. And in “The Day of Spring Rain”, a horrible day is ultimately redeemed by the memory of the narrator’s mother, whose introduction into the narrative is the tender resolution of the preceding catalogue of woes.

Often the reversal is that of perspective – a woman bored with her rural bolt-hole and desperate to get back to the city pauses to consider the benefits; a foreigner with a nervous stomach learns a lesson in storytelling. There is humour too, as in “K. and A.”, the amusing tale of two young academics, seemingly destined always to be the unsuccessful pair for every job shortlist of three candidates, whose competition turns to collaboration – up to a point. And in the charming “Nice Grannies”, a nervous dental patient is entertained by a coterie of giggling grannies who have come in support of their elderly friend.

Communication is key. In the opening tale, “I Thought You Said You Loved Me”, which begins with a lyrical and elegiac depiction of the rural scene, a young priest aggressively proselytizes an old monk from a dying village without offering anything more substantial than his “love” – which is as meaningless as it is militant, since it carries no compassion or understanding or practical help. He talks at his potential convert without pausing to listen or look, with a predictable lack of success. The narrator of “Prayer to Buddha” muses on his French publisher’s attempt to “read” a fellow writer’s face: “When K. laughs, he actually looks like he is crying, and vice versa . . . his face resembles one of those traditional masks, doesn’t it, the ones where it’s impossible to tell what feeling’s it’s meant to express?” Later, he recounts how a prank took on an unexpected meaning when a bawdy chant became transmuted in translation.

Across many of the parent/child relationships there’s a sense that parents don’t think to speak while children don’t stop to see, while a genuinely close mother-daughter pair is described as having “a common language”: “What I mean is, they always understood one another. People used to talking to each other never run out of things to say.” But when the characters do get to actually talking, new acquaintances and old friends are able to know one another better, unexpected conversational detours serve up new understandings and closer relationships. The opacity of others’ inner lives is conquered by taking an interest and by asking to be told a story. The stories offered up to the moon have a therapeutic effect on the narrators, and endings tend to be more optimistic than beginnings.

While the collection as a whole feels too slight to be entirely satisfying, Shin Kyung-sook writes with a quiet but palpable empathy for her characters, teasing out humour and hope.

 

Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse
Translator, When the Whales Leave (2020) by Yuri Rytkheu,
Sergeant Bertrand (forthcoming) by Aleksandr Skorobogatov

Author's Profile

Shin Kyung-sook is a writer. Born in Jeongeub, North Jeolla Province in 1963. She made her literary debut in 1985 when her novella "A Winter Fable" won the Munye Joongang Literary Award for Best First Novel. She is the author of seven short story collections, including The Blind CalfThe Sound of BellsUnknown Women, and Moonlight Tales, and seven novels, including An Isolated RoomLee JinPlease Look After Mom, and I'll Be Right There. She has received a number of prestigious literary awards at home and abroad, including the Yi Sang Literary Award, the Dongin Prize, the Hyundae Munhak Award, Prix de l'Inapercu, and the Man Asian Literary Prize.