On a winter’s night a traveller

Appearing in The Sunlight Press, November 2021

Winter in Sokcho
By Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)
Open Letter, 160 pages, $14.95

For bi-racial people there can be a sense of dislocation, of being in a culture but not completely of it. The feeling looms large in the novel Winter in Sokcho. Both Dusapin and the un-named narrator are French-Korean, looking for roots they might never really find. If there is an aura of alienation there is also a sense of heightened observation, the awareness that comes from being the outsider looking in.

The setting is the town of Sokcho, on the eastern coast of South Korea, not far from the border with North Korea. In the summertime Sokcho is a bustling seaside resort; in winter it is desolate and half-frozen, a town waiting for time to pass. Likewise, the narrator, who works as the manager-cook at a faded, rundown guesthouse, is waiting. But for what? She does not know. Her social life consists of a desultory relationship with a boyfriend who wants to move to Seoul and tetchy contact with her mother, who runs a fish stall. When the boyfriend departs she does not even say goodbye.

Her equilibrium – or perhaps stagnation – is upset by the arrival of Kerrand, a French artist (he draws severely aesthetic comic books) who is looking for inspiration. He asks her to show him around, which she does, in a half-hearted way. There is not much to see, and little to talk about. Even a trip to the border with North Korea reveals only a bare landscape, with a shroud of fog. But her interest in him grows. Perhaps she sees in him the French father she never knew, perhaps he represents a means for her to move out of her ever-deepening rut.

Or maybe he is a way for her to simply make a decision. In this way she represents the fundamental questions facing South Korea: whether to be a country that looks forward or one that looks back, whether it is Western or Asian, whether it will be a peacemaker or a warrior. This ambiguity is summed up in a scene where the narrator’s mother makes her buy a traditional hanbok dress for Seollal, the Korean New Year. The narrator agrees to wear it but comments that it makes her look obese.

What she wants is to be truly seen, for herself and not as a social oddity. And in the end, her wish is granted, in a conclusion that is quietly satisfying, as well as a bit surprising.

All this is told in poetic, crystalline prose, and it is no wonder that the novel won two prestigious prizes, the Prix Robert Walser and the Prix Régine Desforges. Translating it from the original French must have been a trial but Higgins has captured the sense of detail and division that defines both the setting and the central character.

We have all known a Sokcho, we have all felt that complex sense of wanting to leave and needing to stay. Dusapin has captured that here, in a novel that is both intimate and beautiful.

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