Review: Yun Dae-nyeong’s “Between Heaven and Earth”

Yun Dae-nyeong

Yun Dae-nyeong

Yun Dae-nyeong’s Between Heaven and Earth is a story of such tenuous plotting that it threatens to disintegrate as it is read. It begins with a disjointed introduction in which the narrator, using semi-rhetorical questions, directly addresses the reader as though the reader were questioning the narrator. In the course of doing so, the narrator answers one of the questions, “I don’t know why I followed her. I just followed her blindly, even though I didn’t know where she was heading.” Unfortunately, that could be a metaphor for the plot here, which doesn’t even bother to be driven by coincidence, instead random things, impulsively chosen, just happen. The narrator is completely unmoored, and the introduction ends with a paragraph that tries to bring it back, a matter-of-fact accounting of the place the narrator stands.

In the next chapter, we are flipped back to the start of the story. The narrator is on the way to pay respects to a dead aunt and bumps into (his shoulder into her stomach, somehow?) a woman who he quickly identifies as marked with death, although it later turns out to be that she is marked by betrayal. On this premise, he follows her from Gwangju to Wando, and then walks behind her for an hour and a half to an inn. By this time a reader is completely aware of Yun’s clunky obsession with the color ‘milky’ white, which stands for (contrary to the commentary on the back of the book) death. The narrator has elliptical conversations with the innkeeper, full of ellipses, hops and vague portents that never seem to add up to much or come to conclusion. It is in one of these conversations that the innkeeper gives the book its name when he asks the non-sequitur question, “Is there any trace left when a man goes in between heaven and earth?” It is all intended to be very mysterious, but instead comes across as silly and insubstantial.

Both the narrator and innkeeper are convinced the woman is suicidal, and throughout the narrator keeps claiming the woman had intentionally drawn him with her. When, finally, a suicide does come, it is random and unrelated to the story. Then the woman crawls in his bed. Then she reveals she has been betrayed in love. Then they have sex. Then she leaves after telling him she had been planning to commit suicide because she was 4 months pregnant by a man that left her. She says this sex will erase her past life and give her reason to live. Then she leaves. Then he leaves. There are a few more plot twists explained by the innkeeper. Then the man leaves.

It is all so random that it became a chore to read, as it was clear that there would be no destination, and the journey wasn’t worth reporting on. I should note two possibilities that might explain this without putting any blame on the author or story:

1) It is quite possible this is a book that is impossible to translate accurately and so delicacy in Hangul is replaced by obscuration and attenuation in English
2) This is a genre for which there is no equivalent in English writing (Like the “seasonal bucolic” and “pundan munhak,” both of which seem quite popular in Korean, but don’t have a place to land in English.

There are slight translation problems, sentences that contain multiple thoughts (though, to be fair, this can be a feature of Korean writing) and odd word choices and structures:

My mother had gone to pay our respects. This would have been considered acceptable, even though I myself did not go but when I thought of my aunt I felt it was not really true.

I’m guessing the narrator is saying here that it is not true that his absence would be “considered acceptable?” That doesn’t entirely make sense, since he says it would have been acceptable. He also goes immediately on to say that he goes to the funeral because of past consideration of the In any case, the construction of the sentence is quite awkward and it obscures meaning.

Or

“I stopped opening the rear door of the taxi, and as if someone grabbed me by my collar, I retreated hesitantly.”

Which seem to be from two entirely different physical encounters. It is always possible, of course, that this is a “faithful” translation. If so, this is one of those books for which a small bit of betrayal might have been a tonic.

With its gossamer story, intentional lacunae, and plotless-ness, Between Heaven and Earth is not redeemed by its often labored use of color as a symbol, or its occasional well-turned phrase. This is one of the few Jimoondang non-pundan munhak publications that I really can’t recommend.

8 thoughts on “Review: Yun Dae-nyeong’s “Between Heaven and Earth”

  1. Dear Charles,

    You neglected to state that this thing won the 1996 Yi Sang Prize. Perhaps you were too embarrassed to mention it.

    This book has nothing to redeem it in my opinion. I’ve read books before that make no sense, at least in the narrative, or even the deconstructed, way. I can deal with that–even like ’em, sometimes. I don’t know if he was trying to be Barthelme-ish, or if as you wonder “seasonal bucolic” (whatever that is), but he couldn’t have done a worse job of it short of writing backwards. I slugged though it, but that’s the nicest thing I can say.

    There may be something I’m missing, but only because it’s so obscure. As you point out, a very rare Jimoondang Short Fiction offering that is not worth the 5000 W printing cost.

    PS: This Saturday is “foreigners day” at Sangam, FC Seoul vs Daegu, at a discount! (10,000 W gets a 12,000 E section ticket, a beer and a dog!)

  2. “It is all so random that it became a chore to read, as it was clear that there would be no destination, and the journey wasn’t worth reporting on.”

    I’ve felt that way about half the submissions I’ve received this year. Some people seem to think that weirdness and greatness are the same damn thing; that just because great artists think outside the box that anything odd or random becomes great.

  3. Tuttle – Heh, I did skip over that. I’m going to put this guy on Wikipedia, more because I have the information at hand than because I think people should rush out and buy his work. I’ll look around to see if anything else has been translated that might make his nickname as the “representative Korean writer of the 90’s” make sense.

    David – (reader who don’t know, David is editor of Beatdom) one of the problems with being a champion of the Beats (and Hunter and Bukowski) is that part of their artifice was to make things look entirely spontaneous. This has been entirely too enticing to lazy writers who think that was the sum of the thing and all you need to do is get drunk and blather.

  4. Fair point, Charles. I think so many people read Naked Lunch and assume that randomness is art; that his madness can be copied. The Beats are to blame for so much crappy writing… but probably nowhere near as much cheap imitation as HST.

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