I have read very little Korean literature: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (tr. Deborah Smith), Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom (tr. Kim Chi-young), and now Kim Yi-Seol’s Bienvenue/Welcome (tr. into French by Lim Yeong-Hee and Françoise Nagel). All three extremely dark novels, all three dealing with a woman’s (oppressed) place in society, all three dealing with serious family ruptures. All three written by women as well, which makes me wonder if the contemporary books coming from the Republic of Korea’s male writers might be different. Wikipedia tells me there is very little Korean literature translated into English or other languages – but I am curious to find what I can and dig in further. (I did find this link for a thorough, albeit slightly dated, list of Korean literature available in English, and here for some more contemporary listings.)
Bienvenue is the story of Yunyeong – a young, unschooled woman from a poor background, now living in Seoul and trying to earn enough money so that her boyfriend can finish studying for his civil service exams, thus propelling their small family (they have a one-year-old daughter) toward a better life. It seems, for just a short while that she will be able to climb out of poverty. But obviously Yunyeong’s carefully laid plans will go to waste because there are too many pressures at her heels: her family back home needs money from her, her boyfriend never studies, her daughter has some medical issues.
Yunyeong takes a job at a big restaurant, for something like fourteen hours a day. Her exhaustion is impressive, and the pay is not great. She must also stay away from her child for so long that the baby starts not to recognize her. Her boyfriend fails his exams, her sister (who is missing) calls her for money. At the same time she’s offered an opportunity – an offer presented so blandly even Yunyeong can’t really bat an eyelash when a regular customer makes a remark about her body, about the “possibility” of her. Just like that she begins sex work, like another of the restaurant’s servers. The novel continues on from here exploring in detail what life becomes for Yunyeong as this reality settles in over her.
Bienvenue is stark in many ways – which is as it should be when dealing with this kind of subject matter. There is very little lyricism to beautify Yunyeong’s experience. When the novel does hit these notes, they are quite pronounced. Something the novel does extremely well is look at female anger—there are hordes of ragingly angry women in the novel. Yunyeong’s disappointed and desperate mother who kicks her father as he’s dying in their home. Yunyeong’s co-workers with their petty, violent infighting. Yunyeong’s mother-in-law, who beats her son when he appears on her doorstep with a girlfriend and child. And then Yunyeong herself, who loses control at several key moments – lashing out verbally and physically, bent on destroying something or someone else in retaliation for the destruction she’s taken upon herself in the hope of a better life. This kind of outward violent anger isn’t often seen in western novels and it intrigued me.
Kim Yi-Seol is a younger writer (my age – ha!) and has three novels and a short story collection – none of which are yet translated into English. I was curious to see that the original Korean title of Bienvenue is Hwanyeong (환영) which appears to have a double meaning, both “welcome” and “ghost” or “phantom”. Alas the translation can’t contain those two nuances. I’d love to read more of her work, especially as it seems her work deals consistently with motherhood, vulnerable women, and family dynamics.