Happy New Year to Everyone – To Raymond Carver, by Kim Yeon-su (Translated by Maya West), is a male version of a very Korean modern fiction approach – a woman’s life (in this case the wife of the narrator) is examined through the conceptions and misconceptions of a husband, and in this examination the state of the relationship is also explained (an approach that has been used by Han Gang in Vegetarian, and Kyung Eun-hye in My Wife’s Boxes and Poor Man’s Wife).
It is New Year’s Eve, and the husband awaits the arrival of a Singh “friend” of his wife, who is coming to tune a badly neglected piano that the narrator has acquired for his wife. When Satvir Singh does arrive, he causes the narrator to begin to ask himself questions about communication, both between cultures, and obviously in his marriage, which is, at best, stale.
The narrator has been aware of the friendship of his wife and Singh, and in first person narrative slowly reminisces about what he does know, particularly that the two became close despite a formidable language barrier. Singh initially comes across badly to the narrator because his Korean is poor (LOL, this is classically Korean – Koreans in general are still not used to low-levels of Korean language speaking, and have trouble with them), and the narrator himself is awkward, even forcing Satvir to drink beer, though vaguely aware this is probably against Satvir’s religious beliefs.
Still, struggling through, the language barriers, while at the same time contemplating how Satvir and his wife have become friends, the narrator comes to realize that “good” language is not a prerequisite to understanding, particularly when the narrator realizes that his wife has communicated to Satvir that she is lonely, even though she is married.
The piano is the focus of a subplot that both amplifies and contrasts with the main story – the amplification and contrast serving to put focus on Kim’s ‘theoretical’ question of whether communication is possible, and to what extent different languages and cultures hinder and, paradoxically, help communication (at one point the narrator speculates that it is lack of shared context that allows his wife to communicate freely with Satvir – a speculation that seems to make a lot of sense):
I sometimes felt that she might just need someone to listen to her without saying anything, whether the listener understands it or not. I think it has been the Indian guy to whom she has turned since last fall, as that man is always there to listen to her stories, even though he never understands, her hardships, dreams that she still has in her mind or even trivial things, such as which colors she likes and which books have impressed her the most. That’s why she calls him a ‘friend.’
While the narrator still puts friend in quotation marks and doesn’t quite get that Satvir most likely does “get” his wife’s position, this passage marks an important point in the story, at which the narrator begins to understand that communication is often beyond the simple instrument of “language.”
The title is dual, both referring to the situation, as the narrator awaits, with a stranger, his wife’s arrival on New Year’s Eve and perhaps through Satvir learns a bit more about her, and also to Raymond Carver. At the time Kim wrote this story he was translating “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, which features a similar structure.
The story ends on an open note (had to put a piano joke in there somewhere^^), which I found rather refreshing.
According to the notes at the end of the book, it Kim often writes about international interactions, and this makes him an author to watch as Korea’s “Koreaness” (which all its fiction focuses on) becomes increasingly entangled in internationality.
As usual, the book is bilingual, has commentary at the end, and should be purchased as part of the set, and not individually.^^