Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho has been on my reading radar ever since I selected Aneesa Abbas Higgins’ sample translation for publication in The Swiss Riveter in 2018. I’ve watched on as the novel has won prizes and garnered high-level praise, both for the original French, and for Aneesa’s translation, but still not read more than the intriguing sample. With the publication of The Pachinko Parlour, I was reminded again of the gap in my reading, and also that ELNet was yet to review Winter in Sokcho – a clear lacuna in our coverage. What was causing these little failings, both of them on my part – as a reader and as editor of #RivetingReviews?
I’m still not sure about the answer to that question, but these shortcomings do seem very much in keeping with the approach Dusapin takes in both novels. Each progresses via small misunderstandings, through slight miscommunications, and, perhaps most importantly, through those small struggles to express ourselves we all experience as we make our attempts at living.
Winter in Sokcho centres round the juddering start to a relationship between a young French-Korean woman and a French guest at the hotel where she works. She is already in a relationship, but it is fraught with miscommunication. Her boyfriend is pursuing a career as a model in Seoul, complete with the accompanying cosmetic treatments, apparently oblivious to his partner’s own body issues, which she fails to express other than in a way he terms ‘hostile’.
Kerrand seems an entirely different proposition – a French graphic novelist, visiting this Korean border town to do research for his ongoing comic series. There is a clear attraction between him and our protagonist, but it is never expressed – verbally or physically. She simply accompanies him on a trip or two, spends a little time with him in the hotel, and uses her position as housekeeper to look through his things when he is out.
A particularly telling interaction occurs when he manages to spill ink on his bedspread. The awkwardness of their exchange, the misunderstanding with which it seems fraught, apparently stems from the confusion of their roles – are they hotel staff and guest, or friends? But Dusapin adds elegant layers of sexuality, and of a certain type of adult shame:
‘He picked up the bedspread, my attempt at a joke apparently lost on him. He apologised for having spilled ink on the bedding. He seemed embarrassed, I said it didn’t matter.
“Can I leave it with you?”
I held my arms out. He shook his head.
“I didn’t mean for you to carry it, I just wanted to know if you could wash it.”
“Yes, I told you I could.”
“Shall I put it in the machine?”
“No, it needs special stuff for the ink.”
His shoulders dropped.
“Leave it all in your room, I’ll deal with it.”
“It’s in the way there. Let me put it somewhere for you.”
I’d be late for my mother, but I didn’t mind. If anything, I was quite pleased.’
In an equally potent moment of miscommunication, our heroine goes with Kerrand to the border with the north, and visits the museum there – her first time doing so, to his surprise. ‘Tourists are the only ones who come here’, she states with confidence. However, when she buys their tickets, her status as a native Korean woman, and as part of a couple, seems to be put in question by a perceived language barrier:
‘At the museum entrance, inside a sterile box, a woman’s face leaned in, mouth close to the microphone. Five thousand won.
“For two?” I asked.
A pair of bulging eyes looked languidly up at me. Yes, for two people, she said in English. I choked back the humiliation of not being addressed in my own language in front of Kerrand. A rubber-gloved hand pointed us in the right direction.’
The Pachinko Parlour expands this sense of language as a barrier rather than a conduit to communication across a whole novel. Claire is Swiss-French-Korean, visiting Tokyo to see her grandparents, who escaped the Korean War as teenagers to live in Japan. Her communication with them is stilted – limited by a lack of fluency in a shared language:
‘I used to be able to speak Korean but I lost it when French became my main language. My grandfather used to correct my mistakes, but not any more. We communicate in simple English, with a few basic words in Korean and an array of gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. We never speak in Japanese.’
This communication problem proves most obstructive when Claire tries to discuss a trip to Korea she is planning for the three of them. Even their willingness to go on the journey seems in doubt: they’re making no preparations and seem resistant to Claire’s attempts to finalise their plans. Claire only believes they want to go because her Korean-speaking boyfriend Mathieu, now back in Switzerland, assures her they do.
While waiting for this trip that may or may not happen, Claire takes on a tutoring job, teaching a young girl French. But her interactions with the girl and her mother are also littered with the miscommunications and misunderstandings that in this second novel Dusapin has elevated to an art. At the end of their first lesson Madame Ogawa ‘seems relieved that my visit is over. She’s wearing a robe, her hair is wet. I haven’t said goodbye to Mieko, she hasn’t finished the work sheet. But the door slides shut.’
Claire and Mieko’s relationship continues in a similar vein until their final day together, when Claire says:
‘“We haven’t spoken much French…”
“You can tell your mother if you want.”
“Tell her what?”
“That she’s a much better teacher than I am.”’
Yet, despite, or maybe because of, these communication difficulties – Claire regularly finds herself apologising to Mieko for arguing with her as if she’s an adult – the pair have formed a strong bond: ‘You’re like a mum to me’ Mieko tells her before they part.
It’s almost impossible for any author or dramatist to resist the temptation of clear expression. Confusion and discord may reign for a time, but our instincts are always for some kind of resolution – for an air-clearing argument in which our characters state their complaints, their needs, their love. Dusapin has an almost preternatural ability to ward off such impulses, to the extent that her art seems based on humans’ inability to express themselves fully to one another. The result, however, is two very slim, seemingly quiet novels that are closer to lived experience than most of the thick, action-packed volumes with which they share bookshop shelves.
Reviewed by West Camel
WINTER IN SOKCHO and THE PACHINKO PARLOUR
By Elisa Shua Dusapin
Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
Published by Daunt Books (2020, 2022)
September 2022 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for Orenda Books. He has written two novels, Attend and Fall. He is the editor of the Riveter magazine and the #RivetingReviews for the European Literature Network.n.
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