South Korea vs. Spain [Women's World Cup of Literature: First Round]

This match was judged by Mythili Rao, producer for The Takeaway at WNYC.

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What a brutal match. These two novels hold nothing back. Read in succession, it’s hard to take in their fight for narrative supremacy without flinching. These are books about the hard truths of life we don’t wish to discover—but are nonetheless powerless to shield ourselves from.


First: South Korea’s effort. It’s easy to underestimate Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found. It’s a slight volume—roughly as tall and wide as my outstretched hand and only 103 pages long. But the anguish and desperation of those pages lingered in my mind long after I finished reading. The novel follows an unnamed young woman who, when the story opens in 1988, is employed as a temp worker in a dead-end clerical position at the university. Despite her college credentials, it’s the best job she can get. It’s better than her second job, serving food, mopping floors, and washing dishes at a restaurant behind the Plaza Hotel; and it’s much better than the factory job she works screwing caps of dye onto tubes during the university’s summer break. In any case, father has been imprisoned and her mother drinks too much to hold a job, so the important thing is simply that she work. And work.

While her serious older brother scrimps and saves to make the journey to Japan (where he plans to work for a janitorial service cleaning sewers) and her bright little sister daydreams of completely reinventing herself as a lesbian, Nowhere’s narrator drifts from job to job in a state of exhaustion. Between shifts, she goes to see her boyfriend Cheolsu. His flat aspect perfectly complements her own numbness:

He just looked blank sometimes. While everyone else was tormented by a restless anxiety, like the dizziness you feel on a spring day, which made them question what they were doing with their lives, Cheolsu was yawning and working on a crossword puzzle. He knew how to accept the tedium without the ennui.

The dramatic heart of this book is built around an unforgivably frigid winter day when the narrator goes to visit Cheolsu on the army base where he’s completing service. After riding bus to the subway and then another subway to another bus, she’s told Cheolsu has left the base for training exercise. So she heads back out into the cold on another bus, carrying a bag of chicken Cheolsu’s nosy mother has entrusted her to deliver to her son. He’s not there. When she at last finds Cheolsu—back in at the headquarters she first visited—he can’t understand why she’s so delayed. The visit ends disastrously.

The narration fast-forwards a decade from there. There’s a parade of other jobs, and a smattering of new coworkers, acquaintances, and would-be lovers—but it’s as though everything began and ended in 1988. The narrator’s feeling of dislocation and hopelessness persists and softly, steadily, deepens through the book’s haunting close. In Sora Kim-Russell’s translation, Suah’s prose is cold and acrid. “Time pushes away that which is intended, rejects that which is rejected, forgets that which is sung about, and is filled with that which it turns its eyes from, such as the white hairs of a loved one,” the narrator concludes. When I emerged from the subway after reading Nowhere’s final page, it was a 70 degree June day but an icy chill ran through my heart.


Enter Spain. The Happy City takes a no less deadly but measurably more complex approach. Elvira Navarro’s novel, set in Madrid, is divided into two parts. The first opens, similarly, with a young man trapped by economic circumstances beyond his control. Chi-Huei spends his early days with his aunt in China; when as an elementary-schooler he’s finally reunited with his immediate family in Spain, he’s suspicious of these strangers. As he grows, his feelings toward his family only become complicated. His mother and grandfather run a restaurant that’s supposed to ensure their future; broken by his time in a Chinese prison, Chi-Huei’s father does his best to simply comply with his headstrong wife and father’s wishes. For his part, Chi-Huei is trapped by the weight of familial duty. After Navarro describes the intimate contours of a recurring argument between Chi-Heui and his mother, she leaves the young protagonist with a bleak discovery:

Every day of his life since had arrived had been a hymn to work, to money, to efficiency—a hymn he had to sing through his excellent grades at school and his help in the kitchen and the aspirations he was required to have for the future. And all as thanks for what they earned him in good faith and with all their love, believing that this and this alone was their duty, the restaurant-rotisserie in which they all worked for aspirations that were not his own and that, to his utter disgust, were quite the opposite, though he wasn’t able to specify what this opposite was.

The second part of The Happy City follows one of Chi-Huei’s neighborhood friends, a precocious, secretive girl named Sara who becomes fascinated by a homeless man she encounters on the street. They have something powerful in common: Her imagination, like his, rejects boundaries. Sara’s parents grow alarmed when the learn of her fascination with this vagrant, but when they ground her, she only grows more obsessed. Nothing in her world is more interesting than this man who lives on the edges of society. Sara and the homeless man begin wordlessly stalking each other; eventually, they strike up a friendship.

It’s a chaste relationship, but a thoroughly corrupting one, all the same. Sara’s interest in the homeless man leaves her no time for girlish pursuits. She ignores art classes and is bored by her friends. In The Happy City’s final scene—a confrontation between Sara’s parents and the homeless man in the bar where she has been sneaking afternoon visits over potato chips with him—Navarro again demonstrates an uncanny talent for depicting the layers of tension that build up in family life. As Sara’s parents enter the bar, “They walk with the full weight of duty upon them, staring hard at the ground, and I suppose they know that I look at them, and that I am terrified.” As Sara’s father addresses the object of his daughter’s fascination, she becomes the conversation’s translator—and in doing so, learns something about her own limits.


In the end, The Happy City is the winner of this match, 3-2: Nowhere to Be Found’s best efforts simply couldn’t match the combined power of Chi-Huei and Sara’s forceful and sharply aimed narratives. After two beautiful, hard-earned goals per team, in stoppage time, Spain comes through with one more taste of net to win the game.


Next up, Spain’s The Happy City will face off against Costa Rica’s Assault on Paradise on Friday, June 26th.

Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Emily Ballaine, and features Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky up against Thailand’s The Happiness of Kati by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva.

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