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The Vastness of Not Understanding

  • onJuly 21, 2015
  • Vol.28 Summer 2015
  • byAmanda Michalopoulou

There are two ways to meet writers. One is to read their books first and make their acquaintance afterwards. The other is to meet them socially and then read their books. In both cases there is a slight disenchantment, a kind of disconnect. Either the book is better than the writer, or the writer appears to be a nice person who wrote a mediocre book. This happens because deep down we can’t really accept that books are written by normal people. What is “normal” anyway? Was Virginia Woolf normal? Or Flaubert? Or Goethe?

     Let me tell you about the one and only time I met a writer who was as promising as her books. I first saw her on a bus in busy Shanghai, where all the writers participating in a residency program gathered to be taken to their hotel. She sat behind me and I remember that I turned my head over again and again to admire her face which reminded me of a white marble sculpture. She was silent and discrete and beautiful. She would smile a lot, putting her hands in front of her face. She wouldn’t talk like most people do, merely to fill in the gaps. In this, she reminded me of a good book. But in this kind of book, although the narrator appears to constantly talk or describe something, there is a quality of silence and deep mysterylike words not made of words but of thin air.

     Jo Kyung Ran, the writer I am talking about, is now a dear friend. Every attempt to objectify her fails. She introduced me to the prose of John Cheever, to Korean delicacies, Japanese hydrating masks, and long walks by the lakes. And although my friend is a real person I still think of her (perhaps because of the distance, as she lives in Korea and I live in Greece) as a character in a novel.

     This character is a fragile woman named Ran who wrote poetry in her youth, spent years in her room reading books, and still lives with her family. She goes to sleep in the morning, sleeps until noon and never Googles anything. She has an inner compass that allows her to move around with ease (Ran wouldn’t get lost in a foreign city) and I admit that I used her calm way of getting oriented in my last novel, when I created the most complicated character of my writing life, God Himself. God is visiting the world with his wife and never stops to think where to go. He has an inner machine of orientation. I owe this machine to Ran. God and his wife even visited some of the places Ran and I would go, the water cities close to Shanghai.The first story of hers I read back then, “Looking for the Elephant,” was an Eastern dystopia. But it was her own dystopia. By being truthful to her own fears and sorrows she writes from the deepest part of herself. The metaphor of an elephant in the room acquires a new meaning when it is treated as a hyper-realistic detail. Critics see in this metaphor the urge for a family, whereas Ran herself talks about her need to lean on something heavier than she, for protection. Let me tell you what this elephant standing in the room means for meit stands for the unexplored feelings, for the words that have no words. In this sense, we are all looking for the elephant in this life and Jo Kyung Ran gives us a map to explore this “elephant feeling”; the vastness of not understanding, which is as common in life as it is in good literature.

 

 

by Amanda Michalopoulou

Novelist