A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Princess Bari (2014) by the respected Korean author Hwang Sok-yong mixes magical realism with the history of North Korea’s famine, with people trafficking and forced labour in present-day London, and the inescapable terror of never being legal. It sounds grim, but the spirit journeys that Bari – heroine of the novel, a North Korean orphan, shaman and survivor – makes to talk to her grandmother and dog, and other beings in the underworld, give the horrors of her journeys in life a leavening of hope. It does seem odd that this novel exudes hope, given that the events of Bari’s life seem irredeemably awful.
The famine in North Korea, the separation of the family (seven girls, their parents and grandmother), their scattering across borders to disappear into poverty and frozen winters, is given cheeriness by the matter-of-fact descriptions of how to survive winter in a dugout lined with lino scraps and straw. Bari’s grandmother teaches her foraging, and they eat fairly well on what appears to be almost nothing, on soup made of rice and mysterious greens and herbs found in the forest. Bari’s father knows how to build a floor of channels lined with stones to let the smoke and heat from the tiny oven warm the floor under their feet, and disappear unseen into the surrounding scrubland, so no-one will find their hideout. When Hyun, the smallest sister, dies of cold, Bari can see her spirit, and talks to her, so she doesn’t feel bereft, just mildly sorry. She can see the spirits of people who used to live in the abandoned North Korean villages that she travels through, looking for her parents.
When Bari escapes to China to train as a foot masseur, she discovers that she can detect illness through reflexology, and can see what has happened to her clients in their past. But economics and politics drive Bari overseas, crammed into a container ship with other smuggled economic migrants, in a ghastly episode of casual cruelty. She is sold to a beauty salon in the Elephant and Castle in London, whose owner pays her wages directly to the snakeheads, to pay off her debts. Bari keeps surviving, working steadily, being friendly and discreet, always choosing the white path of kindness and sincerity over the blue and yellow paths of, we assume, greed and revenge. Her friends in the house of one-room flats are all refugees and illegal migrants, and the spectre of the law taking them away from all they have achieved is a crippling, relentless presence. As Bari says, ‘why do we need borders?’
It’s a very absorbing novel, beautifully translated by Sora Kim-Russell. The characters are people, and their lives feel completely contemporary. The strangenesses mark borderlines in how we read the story. I found the south London parts very realistic, because I used to live there, whereas I read the sections about surviving in the Chinese forest and seeing spirits in ruined villages where the people have been imprisoned or starved, like bad dreams of exotic colours and sounds. The magical realism is not fantasy, which helps the reader escape to a speculative or other world, but an acceptance of magic and other not-natural happenings in the real world, showing how real life is now. Bari cannot escape her world, even if she has spirit powers that tell her more stories than the ordinary person can hear. If she could, I’m sure she would, because her world is constant struggle, but since it’s the only one she has, she lives.
Hwang Sok-yong, Princess Bari (2014), Periscope, 2015, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, ISBN 9781859641743, £9.99