Translated by Jamie Lee Searle
Review by Eleanor Updegraff
Ever since Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian, there has been a surge of interest in Korean literature. Although I’ve never travelled to either South or North Korea, I find it a fascinating region of the world, and this year resolved to explore it further through literature. Several titles have caught my eye recently, including Cho Nam-Joo’s international bestseller Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 and popular North Korean author Paek Nam-Nyong’s Friend, but one novel in particular stood out as different. The Great Homecoming is without doubt about Korea but, unusually, comes to us in translation from the German.
Born in Daejeon, South Korea, author Anna Kim grew up in Austria and has become one of the country’s most highly acclaimed contemporary writers. Her work spans poetry, essay and fiction, and often explores complex, fickle issues such as identity, home and exile, and the hidden casualties of war. All these themes are wrapped up in The Great Homecoming, a novel that on the surface may seem to have a relatively simple story – childhood friends Yunho and Johnny are forced into exile in Japan by the Korean civil war, where they both fall in love with the mysterious Eve Moon – but is in fact a multi-layered and intricate feat of writing that will hugely reward anyone with an interest in the Koreas.
Set principally in the years 1959–60, with flashbacks to Korea under military occupation by Japan both before and during the Second World War, The Great Homecoming is narrated by Yunho, an elderly man looking back on his life. His story is framed by that of a second narrator, a young Korean-German woman (reminiscent of Anna Kim herself) who has travelled to Seoul to find out more about her roots and, in doing so, encounters Yunho’s story. These are the first two of many frames with which Kim has shaped her novel, building a structure of stories within stories, layers upon layers that must be peeled back by the reader in order to get at the heart of the matter. As a young boy developing a fascination with words, Yunho prefers writing to speech: ‘the real thing, the most important thing, was concealed in writing,’ he says. This is exactly how I felt as I read Anna Kim’s novel, where words are used to create a dense web of ink from which I had to disentangle the story’s real meaning.
The Great Homecoming centres on a mystery – the identity of the beautiful, unattainable Eve Moon – but this fictional plot is seamlessly interwoven with factual episodes narrating the history of the Korean peninsula and its fraught relationship with Japan. Both fact and fiction can seem quite unbelievable, featuring a cast of extraordinary characters and developing through bizarre twists of fate, but it is the way they work together that makes this novel so evocative. Even as the fictional plot tries to move forwards, it is constantly being hauled back to the past by the insertion of a more factual passage, creating a looped, labyrinthine structure that reflects both Yunho’s and the country’s ‘obsession with history’. The past is a major character in this novel; history a weight from which neither characters nor reader can escape.
Compounding the feeling that I was reading my way through a labyrinth was the repeated motif of enclosed spaces: windowless rooms, dark shops, narrow streets, the hold of a ship. Kim’s characters inhabit a twilit, confusing world, and as well as searching for the truth of their own and others’ identities, they are engaged in a constant – and seemingly fruitless – quest to find that most elusive of concepts: home. Exiled from a country that has been split quite literally down the middle, Yunho finds himself belonging nowhere. In the Japanese city of Osaka he lives among the ‘zainichi’ community, fellow Korean exiles who regard their stay abroad as only temporary, even though for many of them it will last a lifetime. An aura of loss and yearning pervades the entire novel; a sense that both the story and its characters are purposefully trying to go somewhere yet will never quite manage to arrive at their destination.
A further dimension is added to this particular reading experience in the form of our knowledge that the novel has been translated: another voice to join the choir of author and multiple narrators. Jamie Lee Searle seems to have maintained much of the original German cadence – which itself adds another aspect of ‘otherness’ to the novel – including long sentences punctuated by many commas that give the text a flowing, lyrical appeal. The translation is effortless, its language haunting, capturing the many different voices of the story and its sense of restless unease, which at times brings the reader into the heart of the action only the next moment to push us away.
For all that it may be labyrinthine in nature – in terms of structure, mystery-like plot, and the complex themes it seeks to tackle – The Great Homecoming is peppered with moments of incredible, luminous beauty. All the more effective for taking place against the otherwise dark, twisting backdrop, these images stood out for me like sudden beams of moonlight. Sometimes it was as simple as a description of blossoming cherry trees on an early spring evening, or else the childhood scene in which Yunho and Johnny stand on top of a hill spinning tin cans containing candles – brief lanterns slicing through the night. Each time they startled me with their intense clarity and fleeting nature, giving me the sense that I had to grasp on to these moments of truth while I could.
A hugely rewarding reading experience for anyone interested in this particular region of the world or beautifully translated literature, The Great Homecoming is a magnificent example of how the structure, the very language, of a novel can both mirror and add depth to its subject. Exploring a troubled history and the knotty nature of identity and homeland, it is a profound, complex and mesmerising work of fiction from one of Austria’s most inspiring contemporary authors.
Eleanor is a freelance writer, translator and proofreader/copy-editor, living in Austria. She blogs at The Monthly Booking, where this review first appeared.
Anna Kim, The Great Homecoming (Granta Books, 2020). 978-1846276552, 420pp., paperback.
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