History / Lit Pass / Fail

Four Novels on Missing Persons

“History has failed us, but no matter,” begins Pachinko. One might think that the key part of the statement is “failed” but really it’s “us.” In the novel’s context, it refers to the Zainichi Koreans whose lives were rocked by a succession of wars. Still, that “us” failed by history can widen to include those whose lives were rudely shortened, left off textbooks, or overlooked for a lack of written records. A number of recent contemporary novels negotiate this problem of remembrance, salvaging stories from the wreckage of the twentieth-century to stitch them into something surreal and haunting.

Lately, I have been searching for novels that collapse linear chronologies. Instead of stories that imply some march towards Progress in their telling, why not foreground the novels on the unrepeatability of life, memory, and vanishings? I seek novels that acknowledge the importance of minor characters in shaping the teeming world, rather than the politicians who played it as a giant chess game.

These four novels do the work of history, tracking generations across the decades, from Naples, Italy, or Long Island, New York to Karuizawa, Japan, or Taiwan to the jungles of Burma, to Gwangju Korea. All of these postwar stories forego plain realism and cross borders, in pursuit of the surreal and the fable. They remind me how the unresolved battles and violences of the last century still lie beneath our feet. They remind me what a bundle of contradictions and complicities we are.

1) Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

Photo by Esther Kim

They all wore diaphanous summer outfits in different shades of white; with the sunlight shining through them, their figures seemed translucent.

Set against the backdrop of postwar Japan, A True Novel by Minae Mizumura nests a story within stories, and at the center stands the enigmatic Taro Azuma, a Heathcliff figure. Narrator-novelist Minae encounters his story many times before trying to put it to paper: she meets the laconic Taro, who worked as a chauffeur for the neighboring American family in Long Island. Several years later the editor Yusuke Kato, a man so mesmerized by Azuma’s rags-to-riches story, approaches her with questions about Azuma’s past. The novel is structurally complex, shifting and undermining our understanding of the characters, but it ultimately remains a deeply absorbing story of a spurned love. A True Novel levels incisive critiques of the exclusions of Japanese modern society based on race and class. Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation is elegant and clean as ever.

2) Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, translated by Ann Goldstein

And she would conclude: I’m a scribble on a scribble, completely unsuitable for one of your books; forget it Lenu, one doesn’t tell the story of an erasure.

Perhaps I’m cheating by shoehorning the four Neapolitan novels into one slot, but they should be read as a whole. Ann Goldstein’s translation reads beautifully, reflecting her decades in the copyediting department of the New Yorker. The tetralogy tells the story of Lila and Lenu, two young girls from a poor neighborhood in Naples, and their fraught friendship over the course of sixty something years. Told retrospectively by an elderly Lenu, who frequently cuts into the story with digressions, she obsessively searches her memory for clues as to where Lila has vanished. The first novel is reminiscent of a fairytale, with the girls hunting for the dolls they dropped into the sewers, and the world seems monstrously large and hostile. Later novels follow Lila and Lenu through their first marriages, the factories of Naples and rowdy strikes. It captures the exuberance of the ‘60s, the hopes for radical change, and even the first IBM computer gets a cameo appearance. One of the most striking aspects of the novel is its depiction of the casual violence inflicted by men upon women, beaten, cheated or betrayed. It radiates with female rage. It’s no small coincidence then that (whoever ghostwrote) Hillary Clinton’s memoir said Clinton chose to read the Ferrante novels while recuperating from her election loss.

3) Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle, translated by Darryl Sterk

He never expected that the village would be torn down just a few years after Old Tsou died, and that nothing would be left behind—not even a single roof tile, let alone a pair of Japanese pilot’s goggles. The soya milk stand, the beef noodle shop, Old Tsou’s steamed buns, the wild guava tree, the bulbul that had nipped the old man’s earlobes—none of these things would ever exist again. It was as if they had never been.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker International, Wu Ming Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle covers the long-sweep of Taiwanese history, tenderly told through antique bicycles (“war horse”’ in the Chinese) and other antique shop knick-knacks that gather dust and memory. In the main narrative, a son tracks down his father through the license plate number of the Lucky Bicycle his father took when he left his family. Bicycles were like Cadillacs—big ticket investments—for farming and working-class families. “Ride your way into luck!” rang out the jaunty Lucky Bicycle slogan. As the narrator-son interviews strangers, he pieces together his father’s past with the memories of people he encounters. The Stolen Bicycle journeys through the wars in Burma’s jungle to the first zoo of Taipei. Here, the jungle, its animals, and the indigenous people are no backdrop but every bit as sensitive, alive and damaged by war as the“‘more civilized” soldiers. Akin to the natural world in a Miyazaki film, it is joyous, mystical and deeply interconnected with human violence. For example, a banyan tree sprouts human limbs, an elephant inhales soldiers’ eye balls through its trunk, or another tree engulfs and raises a rusted bike skyward.

In his author’s note, Wu confesses that he had his novel fact-checked, which reflects his lovingly obsessive relationship with the details. The novel is crammed with knowledge of: antique bikes and bike repairs; butterfly catching and Taiwan’s butterfly craft export industry; the art of novel writing; history of zoos and zookeepers; war photography; colonial Taiwan; and military maneuvers in the jungles of Malaya. Darryl Sterk’s translation is impressively sensitive to the multilingual quality of Taiwan’s society, incorporating Japanese, Mandarin, Hokkien, Hakka, Taiwanese and indigenous languages.

4) Han Kang’s Human Acts, translated by Deborah Smith

Photo by Esther Kim

That was the memory I had to cling to, there in the pitch-dark thicket. I had to conjure up every little sensation of that night when I’d still had a body.

Han Kang’s Human Acts is a slight novel compared to some of the door stoppers above, but its prose burns with an intensity that demands a shorter form. Though The Vegetarian won Han Kang the Man Booker International in 2016 and she appeared again on the shortlist this year, Human Acts is arguably her more masterful work. The novel covers the Gwangju massacre, a tragedy under the military dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan in the 1980s. It was kept off South Korean official records until as recently as 1997. Slipping between the perspectives of a young boy searching for his friend’s corpse, a boy’s ghost, a factory girl and a torture survivor, Human Acts captures the harrowing violence in spare and beautiful prose. Translated wonderfully by Deborah Smith, the novel resists falling into the sentimental and patriotic bathos so endemic to popular Korean portrayals of the uprising (cough Taxi Driver). Instead it pulls us closer to the grief and grittiness of the past, saying, this too.

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