Friday, August 6, 2021

WITMonth Day 6 | No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin

No One Writes Back is one of the ultimate WITMonth books. Why? I purchased it during the first ever WITMonth - August 2014, way way back in the earliest days of the women in translation project. I recall purchasing it alongside another book from Dalkey's Library of Korean Literature (Lonesome You, a collection that left very little impression upon me), and it's languished on my shelves for years and years since I purchased it. Somehow, it became one of those books that simply blends into the background of the bookshelf. It was always there, and it gradually became one of those always there books that doesn't seem very attractive and readable. There was always going to be something newer and more appealing. Not to mention that it was never a particularly popular book to begin with, and as such was easy to ignore.

I don't know what brought it off my shelves a few weeks ago, but goodness. Goodness. I'm so glad I finally read it.

No One Writes Back (translated from Korean by Jung Yewon) surprised me from the start. Something about its tone is just so confident, so strong, and so clearly defined that I was a bit taken aback. This was the book I'd been avoiding for so long...? Okay then. The novel immediately sets its stage with the narrator informing us that he's left home, he's a traveler, and he's traveling with Wajo (his dog). Bit by bit, we learn more about who this man is, who his friends are, and what makes him tick. As he goes from city to city, motel to motel, he assigns numbers to the people he meets and then writes them letters. Letter-writing is something pivotal to this novel, reflective of an almost naïve adherence to a past that is quickly disappearing (and has disappeared even more since the novel's original publication in 2009). 

The narrator soon meets a woman on his journey, but she is not there as a love interest or narrative-altering presence. Rather, she is writer and curious mirror to the narrator. The two both travel, they both try to make peace with their home, and they both interact with their environment in a unique way that shapes (and is shaped by) their worldview. The writer seeks to keep traveling as long as she's still working on her latest work; the narrator seeks to keep traveling as long as he hasn't yet received any letters of response from his many correspondents. The two travel together for a while and their relationship is fascinating to watch, because it's always still very clearly about the narrator. He is the center of this story, someone who is lonely and yet not alone, alone at times and yet not lonely.

By the midway point of the novel, I was certain I was reading a good book, but something about it felt hollow. The writing is excellent, the character designs precise and clear, and the pacing extremely direct, but I couldn't for the life of me tell where the story was heading (or if, indeed, it was heading anywhere). I wasn't sure what was keeping me reading, but it didn't seem to be the sort of situation to quit. I resigned myself to the idea that No One Writes Back would have some sort of placid, dissatisfying ending, like so many other well-built novels.

But no, this is so much better than that. With a precision that made me feel like rereading the whole novel as soon as I'd finished it, the pieces fell together into one of the more beautiful, emotionally affecting endings to a book I've read in a long time. That sounds so cliched, but it's true - it wasn't about whether aspects of the ending were sad (and yes, aspects were), it was about the way everything fit together and completed each other. No One Writes Back not only did a brilliant job of justifying almost every one of its pages prior, it also did so in a truly uplifting, positive, and life-affirming way. I finished the book feeling like I'd just had something wonderful open up before me, and while I don't want to spoil what made the ending so beautiful for me, suffice to say that it inspired something pretty good in me.

By the end, I didn't just enjoy No One Writes Back, I loved it. I loved what it sparked in me. I loved how it made me think. I loved how it unfolded and grew. I loved how its technical pieces didn't mask or try to replace its emotional ones. I loved how it made me want to read (and write) so much more. I loved how much it made me feel.

I am also ultimately grateful for how long the book spent on my shelves. I usually bemoan books that I read at the wrong times and ask myself whether I might have liked the book better at a different stage of life (or even on a literal different day). No One Writes Back probably wouldn't have meant the same to me seven years ago, when I first purchased it. I might have liked it, no doubt, but I think that initial hollow feeling would have dominated. Now? The book fit in perfectly.

As to you, dear reader? I suggest you give it a try. I think there's a decent chance you will find it as beautiful as I did.

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of Korean novels, my brother suggested I get Land by Pak Kyŏng-ni. He says it's one of the most famous classic novels of Korean literature. So that's on my list.


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