"So let me ask you this. Are those of you here today Christopher? Or are you the child he carries on his back?"South Korea for most of the second half of the 20th century was ruled by US-friendly dictators who only slowed eased their grip on the military and police forces. The 1980s and early 1990s in particular were a time of frequent student protests against the dictatorship and occasionally in the US there would be brief footage of a particularly violent protest or a self-immolated student who would sacrifice his or her life to make a political statement. As a teenager then, I vaguely recall hearing about these events on the evening "world news" reports, but I do not claim any real familiarity with the causes of these uprisings or their results.
Professor Yoon's story had started out like a single drop of rain amid the hustle and bustle of students preparing for class to end but turned into a sudden midday shower beating down on us. A clear ray of light from the last of the summer sun slipped in through a classroom window that someone had shut tight.
Professor Yoon studied us expectantly, but nobody offered an answer to his question. The slogans of student demonstrators outside followed the ray of sunlight through the window and pushed their way again into our midst. Over his glasses, Professor Yoon's keen and gentle eyes stopped on each of us in turn before moving on. (p. 50)
Therefore, it was with keen interest that I read Kyung-sook Shin's second novel to be translated into English, I'll Be Right There, translated capably by Sora Kim-Russell. Her first translated novel, Please Look After Mom, was an international bestseller, making the New York Times Bestseller List and winning the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize. I'll Be Right There differs from its predecessor in its more direct social commentary, but it is much more than just simply a "coming of age" story amidst socio-political turbulence. There is a very real love for literature as a medium of change, as evidenced in passages such as the one quoted above, taken from a time when the first person PoV narrator, Jung Yoon (no relation to the professor Yoon), has just begun taking a literature class with her future ex-boyfriend and two other peers who play important roles in the novel. In reading it, I was reminded of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, especially in the sense of how the socio-political can pervade (if not actually invade) the "reading spaces" readers like to set up for themselves.
I'll Be Right There goes back and forth from the literary present to the initial events of eight years prior that establish the characters and their life journeys. In the prologue, Jung Yoon receives a call from her ex-boyfriend, Yi Myungsuh, informing her that Professor Yoon is dying. This call, the first contact she's had with him in eight years, triggers a series of reflective flashbacks that serve as the basis of the novel. In expansive chapters punctuated with short, punchy excerpts from Myungsuh's notebook, Shin deftly develops these young adults' characters, utilizing the social unrest at their school to create a contrast to the bookish world of the writers and poets from West and East. As the story develops, this uneasy confluence of the literary and the real-world leads to unsettling realizations and tragic events.
In the hands of a lesser author, this story could too readily have become didactic, turgid with its own self-references to both South Korean politics and to literature as a "guiding light." Yet for the most part, Shin manages to avoid these pitfalls. Yes, there are heart-wrenching events, especially striking at one of the four core people in Jung Yoon's life, but there is also the realization that transformation, even if it involves moments of acute pain and sadness, may not be such a bad thing after all. Shin's eloquent yet direct style allows a deeper insight into her characters, creating connections that make it easier for non-Korean readers to understand the import of what is transpiring around the characters. While there are moments where the narrative tension perhaps eases too much and necessary friction is not present to make certain scenes as vivid as they otherwise could have been, on the whole, Shin manages to build gradually but steadily toward a memorable conclusion. This can be seen in an early foreshadowing, again from Professor Yoon's comments on St. Christopher to his new students:
"Each of you is both Christopher and the child he carries on his back. You are all forging your way through adversity in this difficult world on your way to the other side of the river. I did not tell you this story in order to talk about religion. We are all travelers crossing from this bank to that bank, from this world to nirvana. But the waters are rough. We must rely on something in order to make it over. That something could be the art or literature that you aspire to create. You will think that the thing you choose will serve as your boat or raft to carry you to that other bank. But if you think deeply about it, you may find that it does not carry you but rather you carry it. Perhaps only the student who truly savors this paradox will make it safely across. Literature and art are not simply what will carry you; they are also what you must lay down your life for, what you must labor over and shoulder for the rest of your life." (pp. 50-51)It is in this passage that the germ for the story's ultimate revelations lies. I'll Be Right Here may take its sweet time in getting to that crucial point where literature, art, and life converge to create something poignant, but when it does, the reader knows that she has read something powerful and moving. This may prove to be a work that lingers in my mind long after the final words of this review are typed. If only all stories could prove to be so.