‘A world both fleeting and eternal’ [book review]

A review of The Great Homecoming by Anna Kim, translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle

There are several countries with which I have an enduring fascination, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that I have never visited them. A relatively recent addition to this list are the Koreas, North and South: the one a closed, shadowy world, subject of speculation, news bulletins and little else; the other a place of glittering skylines and high mountains, altogether more appealing and readily accessible through film, pop music, travel blogs and restaurants – but, as it turns out, no less mysterious. Having barely scraped the surface of Korean literature, I’ve found myself recently paying it more attention, and after reading Cho Nam-Joo’s blistering bestseller, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, this month I moved on from the country’s gender politics to its history.

The Great Homecoming Anna Kim

The Great Homecoming is quite unusual in terms of the literature I have read on Korea, both because it combines North and South and because it isn’t actually ‘Korean literature’. Author Anna Kim was born in Daejeon, South Korea, but grew up in Austria, where she lives and writes today. Accordingly, The Great Homecoming was written in and translated from German, giving it a definite Western European, not to say specifically Austrian, flavour. Although I haven’t read the original, I felt that I recognised some distinctly German elements of it – a tendency, for example, to construct long sentences composed of many comma-separated clauses, a structure that translator Jamie Lee Searle seems to have maintained in English to give the text a lyrical, flowing, almost hypnotic quality. I often wonder how a novel’s original language might affect it – beyond the obvious ways such as defining readership before translation – and in this case I think the very style of writing inherent in its original language adds a whiff of outsider-ness that subtly reinforces the substance of the story.

Set mainly in 1959–60, The Great Homecoming tells the story of Yunho, a young man who is forced into exile several times: first by the Korean civil war, which divides the country, and secondly by a violent crime that sees him flee to Osaka, Japan, along with his friends Eve and Johnny. Here they join the ‘zainichi’, a population of Koreans who see themselves as living ‘temporarily’ in Japan and make up a complex community divided often bitterly along political lines. Yunho’s story – which also takes us back to his childhood and a Korea under occupation by the Japanese military during the Second World War – is a narrative of spies, disappearances, illicit relationships and unsettling friendships, all of it underpinned by a longing to return to an elusive ‘home’. His account is framed by that of a young woman who could be Anna Kim herself: born in Korea but adopted by German parents, she has grown up in the West and returned to Seoul in search of her roots. There, in the capacity of translator, she meets Yunho and hears his story.

The many layers of voice that make up the novel – author, translator and two narrators, stacked one within the other like Russian dolls – lend the experience of reading it a slightly distant quality. Yunho, who is much concerned with words, tells us early on that he prefers the written word to speech, feeling that ‘the real thing, the most important thing, was concealed in writing’. I felt that this is true of The Great Homecoming itself, which is made up of layer upon layer of fictional plot and historical fact to create a dense web of words that we must unpick to get at the central message of the story. This message may seem deeply buried, but it is there all along for us to find – as Yunho also tells us, ‘nothing disappears forever in Seoul’.

Made up as it is of fiction mixed with fact – entire passages are given over to explaining the troubled history of North and South Korea, which I, knowing little about it, found absolutely fascinating – The Great Homecoming is a novel that requires some concentration. That isn’t to say that it is at all difficult to read – Searle’s translation seems effortless, moving fluidly between more reserved and immediate voices, setting us sometimes at the heart of the action and other times making us external judges of it. It captures perfectly the shape-shifting nature of the novel, in which nothing is ever quite as it seems: Eve Moon, the mysterious Korean dancer with an American name; the fraught historical relationship that inextricably binds Japan and Korea; and even Yunho, who eventually reveals himself to be a not-necessarily-reliable narrator.

Because of the complicated nature of its mystery-like plot and historical background, while reading The Great Homecoming I sometimes felt as though I was in a labyrinth. Even as the plot tries to move forwards, it is constantly being brought back to the past by the insertion of a passage of history or explanation of political events, the looping structure of the novel mirroring what we are told is a ‘Korean obsession with history’. ‘Even if they rebel against the past, they still look to it for reference’, Yunho says of his kinsmen, and certainly it often seemed as though the great weight of history contained within this novel was having a stifling effect on its progress.

Kim further compounds this effect by using a repeated motif of dark, enclosed spaces: small rooms, ship’s holds, narrow alleys, tortuous cities. These places, in which much of the action occurs, are offset occasionally – and beautifully – by moments of startling luminosity, as though the reader is walking through a dark forest and suddenly stumbles into a moonlit clearing. The image of young boys standing on a hilltop by night, twirling tin cans containing lit candles on the ends of long strings, or perhaps a simple description of blossom-heavy cherry trees on a mild spring evening – passages like this made me sit up and feel refreshed, take a deep breath before I was plunged back into the story. ‘How strange it is, the right thing, its clarity so fleeting and illusory’, Yunho muses at one point, and I felt that these narrative moments were exactly that: scenes of natural beauty or childish innocence, absolute rightness, lifted high above the labyrinthine murk of the story.

Structurally, linguistically and thematically, there is much food for thought in The Great Homecoming, a novel that dives straight into the deep end of complex subjects like home and exile, fact and fiction, whom we choose to trust and why we believe them. It is a novel imbued with the pain of a great separation – the separation of individuals from their homeland, but also of a country rent asunder – which is mirrored in Yunho’s unrequited love for Eve that leaves him feeling ‘ridiculed by the still-echoing memory of wholeness’. Combining the personal and the political in this way, it offers a sense that History as a subject is a complex beast, that what might be set down in the records is in fact made up of millions of individual histories, each of them convoluted, none of them the same.

Far from an attempt to set the historical record straight, The Great Homecoming is a novel that embraces wholeheartedly the multifarious and troubled nature of one region’s identity. Ultimately, it left me asking more questions than I had been given answers, wanting to know more about the mysterious characters peopling its pages and a period of history that is – of course – far more intricate than I, as an utter outsider, had ever known. I found it to be a challenging book of immense depth and poetry that bravely seeks to question our understanding of identity-defining concepts like ‘family’, ‘homeland’ and ‘truth’ – and, in so doing, to maybe try to set us free.

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