December 30, 2011 by markstani
EDIT: This book has won the MAN Asian Literary Prize for 2012. I think it’s a worthy winner, though it certainly polarised opinion more than any other on the award’s shortlist. Kyung-sook Shin is the first woman to win the Prize.
On the face of it, there is nothing out of the ordinary about Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mother. You might say, in fact, that it is a very ode to ordinariness. Slim in weight and scope, it mines a much-plundered theme of what happens to the relationships between an ageing matriarch and her gaggle of children once they have flown the nest.
But in Shin’s capable hands – and they must be more than capable, given this book’s extraordinary success in selling over one million copies in her homeland – this tale of South Korean domesticity becomes anything but ordinary. Delicate, touching and deeply insightful into her country’s culture (superbly translated by Chi-Young Kim) she has crafted an exquisite novel from such an apparently scant resource.
‘Please Look After Mother’ centres on the aftermath of the disappearance of So-nyo, an ailing wife and mother, who is separated from her husband in a Seoul subway station during a rare visit to the capital from her home in the countryside. During their painful search, her children and husband recall moments in their lives in which they took their mother for granted, and as their chances of finding her dwindle, so their guilt grows.
The novel is split into four main parts: the respective points-of-view of the rebellious daughter, the pampered eldest son, the selfish, absent husband, and finally, of the mother herself. So far, so cliched, you might say. But told using such a simple formula, Shin’s message digs home, perhaps because it might apply to us all: her mixture of first and second person narrative succeeds in pointing an accusatory finger far beyond the confines of the characters she has created.
Before you lost sight of your wife on the Seoul Station underground platform, she was merely your children’s mother to you. She was like a steadfast tree, until you found yourself in a situation where you might not ever see her again – a tree that wouldn’t go away unless it was chopped down or pulled out. After your children’s mother went missing, you realised it was your wife who was missing. Your wife, who you’d forgotten about for fifty years, was present in your heart. Only after she disappeared did she come to you tangibly, as if you could reach out and touch her.
If this book has polarised opinions, it’s not hard to see why. It’s hardly ground-breaking, and it does lay on the guilt trip a bit thick. But I wonder if that is precisely what makes it so popular at home. I may be entirely wrong here, having next to no grasp of Korean history, but I sense Shin is aiming this book at the first generation of Koreans to benefit from their country’s economic boom: seizing opportunities made possible by the sacrifices of their elders, the so-called 386 Generation, who hauled the nation out of its post-War poverty. The sad irony, of course, is that those who created the opportunities are now the ones left stranded by their children who have fled to the cities to take them. Pause for a moment, Shin seems to be saying: must we choose between these two conflicting worlds: one of disorientating, soulless streets and fractured relationships; the other of ruddy-cheeked families mashing mung bean porridge and sticking maple leaves on the doors to keep out winter draughts? Is there not a happy medium we have trampled somewhere along the way in the insatiable push for progress?
If South Koreans will take most from this book, that kind of soul-searching can certainly apply to us all. The concluding part, narrated by So-nyo herself, fumbles over a few false notes, but it doesn’t diminish from the pertinence of her message. Maybe Shin’s quaintly crafted story is not quite so ordinary after all.