Saturday, March 15, 2014

Words Never Said

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin

Above the laugher, above the miseries, above the clatter of glasses and the cries of children, I hear a voice saying: Isn’t there some statement you'd like to make? Anything noted while alive? Anything felt, seen, heard, done? You are here. You’re having your turn. Isn’t there something you know and nobody else does?...What about all the words that were said and all the words that were never said.
                                                                                                                        Ann Oakley
“It has been one week since Mom went missing.” So begins this original and engrossing novel, a story set in motion when a woman suffering from dementia gets separated from her husband and disappears while en route to see her grown children in Seoul. As the children scramble to draft a flyer to post around the city, they realize that none of them has a recent photograph of their mother. Moreover they realize—each individually, each with horror—that they cannot even describe her with any accuracy, that they scarcely know her at all:

NAME: Park So-nyo
DATE OF BIRTH: July 24th, 1938 (69 years old)
APPEARANCE: Short, salt-and-pepper permed hair, prominent cheekbones, last seen wearing a sky-blue shirt, a white jacket, and a beige pleated skirt.
LAST SEEN: Seoul Station subway

In the style of a detective novel, three members of the family—a daughter, a son, and the father himself—struggle to reckon with the disappearance, delving deeply into the past, deeply into themselves, in an effort to come to terms with this stoic, long-suffering woman who is at once essential to their lives and oddly so negligible that, in their minds, their memories, they have to piece her together in bits. 

That children sometimes take their parents for granted is hardly news. That, in their restless self-interest, they fail to see them as fully human perhaps even less so. For we tend to know people best through our particular need of them, an emotional myopia as natural as it is regrettable. Still there comes a time for most of us when, abruptly, in a way we might never have anticipated, our parents suddenly bloom before us in full. In that moment we see them as they are, with all their strengths and weaknesses, with all their angers, obsessions, and fears. They are both young and old, happy and sad, lost in the rubble of their nightmares and dreams. So blooms the mother of this story in the minds and lives of her children and her husband as they search in vain for clues that might help them to find her.

Told in the second-person, a typically clumsy, pretentious point of view, the author of this fine novel makes this voice and perspective sing. Indeed for all its initial flatness, it proves haunting in its particular resonance, in its dark and unfamiliar chords. The more I read of it, the more I grew accustomed to its rhythms, its timbre, the more it reminded me of the chorus in Antigone or Oedipus Rex. Not that this was Shin’s intention, though there is no denying the fateful and prophetic in this voice, a strangely oracular quality rendered most acutely when, toward the end of the novel, the mother herself (her whereabouts still unknown) is given a chance to speak. It is like a voice from the void, a voice from the dead.

Yet it is the eldest daughter, Chi-hon, who really sets the tone for this affecting novel. Unmarried, a novelist by profession, she travels widely, so that by the time her illiterate and senile mother disappears the distance between them is great. At one point she reflects glibly, in despair: “Either a mother and daughter know each other well, or they are strangers.” Yet it is only much later, when she travels with her husband to Rome for his work and finds herself standing before Michelangelo’s magnificent Pietà, that she realizes just what strangers they've  been.  

Kyung-sook Shin is the author of numerous works of fiction and is one of South Korea’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists. She lives in Seoul. Please Look After Mom, her first novel to appear in English, was translated by Chi-Young Kim.

Peter Adam Nash

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