In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a pavane (a slow procession) that a princess would have danced to in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even though it’s an elegant piece of music, Ravel has claimed that the title is meaningless: According to a story that appeared in the Rocky Mountain News in 1970, he told someone, “I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c’est tout.”

Korean novelist Park Min-Gyu was obviously inspired by Ravel’s work, but he’s not offering a strict interpretation of it. Unlike the French composer, Park writes about a time he lived in (the mid-1980s), a time when people in his country were beginning to get wealthier (thanks to the housing boom and the stock market), but didn’t know what to do with their new wealth. It was also a time when women, regardless of whether they were beautiful or ugly, were exploited for business purposes. In fact, his novel looks at society’s obsession with beauty by pairing a good-looking narrator with a love interest—the “princess” in this story—who is “extraordinarily ugly.” The result is a haunting (albeit flawed) love story, as well as a commentary about our obsession with money and beauty.

The nameless 19-year-old narrator was not among the wealthy, but he did inherit the good looks of his father, a D-list actor who one day abandoned him and his mother. The narrator gets a job at a department store, where he falls for an ugly co-worker. “What is this?” he writes. “In the same way I’d have sat stunned before the TV, I stood in that office, transfixed by her. I had seen quite a few unattractive girls, but I’d never seen a woman this ugly before. Just as the world’s most beautiful woman, the world’s ugliest woman is no less powerful in completely disarming a man.”

Though, as we later learn, the woman experienced a lot of pain growing up because of her ugliness. Despite being a great student and a hard worker, not many people want to hire her. In fact, an employer refuses to give her a job, even though she receives a recommendation from one of her teachers. Later, when she gets a promotion, she only gets it because the manager figures she’ll never leave her job because she’ll never get married. At other times, co-workers tell her to leave because she’s scaring the customers.

It’s this pain that causes the both of them to be uncertain of each other. However, their friend and co-worker, Yohan, who spends a lot of time observing the foolishness of human beings (especially rich ones) over beer and junk food, gives the narrator advice about love:

When someone’s light is lit, she’ll look beautiful. The stronger the lightbulb, the blurrier the curves of the light and the shape of the bulb. Most women—those women who look so-so or aren’t too attractive—and most men, for that matter, are like dim lightbulbs. Once they’re lit, though, anyone can shine, and that is more beautiful and marvelous than any lightbulb that has lost its light. That’s love. Humans are basically electric cords with a single charge running through them. And when two people meet, they light up each other’s soul.

At first, readers may be surprised that someone who lives alone and who is considered “weird” by one of his co-workers would be able to give this kind of advice, but Yohan ends up taking on a much more significant role. Unfortunately, though, this role convolutes the ending. As a result, the reader cannot help but feel somewhat cheated, since Park uses a device akin to making the whole story seem like a dream, an unnecessary tactic in a novel that would have been better without it.

Another problem with the novel is that, at times, the myriad references to Western pop music overwhelm the story. For example, in the chapter called “Strawberry Fields Forever,” lines from the Beatles’s song weave in and out of the narrative so much that it becomes a distraction. Later on, Park does the same with Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” Sometimes, though, the references seem to serve no greater purpose other than to remind the reader of when there is a shift in time (e.g., Britney Spears’s “. . . Baby One More Time” during the few scenes that take place during the late 1990s.)

That said, Pavane for a Dead Princess still has a lot going for it. It’s a pleasant read in the vein of Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami’s classic love story set during a period of great change. The characters are appealing enough that readers will want to follow them on their journey to adulthood. And like his Japanese counterpart, Park shows that regardless of the dark that surrounds us, true love can shine a light.

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Pavane for a Dead Princess
By Park Min-Gyu
Translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono
262 pages, paperback
ISBN: 978-1-62897-066-1
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