Since reading Princess Bari a couple of weeks ago there are a number of thoughts which have been bubbling around in my head, and I wonder, if I leave some of them here, whether other readers might have thoughts to add.
The first work of Korean fiction I read was The Guest by Hwang Sok-yong, I then read some of his other earlier works in translation, and while I didn’t enjoy them so much, having sensed a kind of leap occur between The Old Garden and The Guest I became very curious about his trajectory, where he was going as a writer following on from The Guest.
This was around 2009/2010, and naturally the book that caught my eye was Princess Bari, but it hadn’t been translated yet. At that time I hadn’t even begun to dream of reading a novel in Korean let alone translating, so I eagerly awaited news that it would be coming out in English.
Last month, after five years of anticipation, I got my hands on a copy! Translated by Sora Kim-Russell and published in the UK by Periscope Books, I was finally able to meet Bari and experience her voyage across the world and beyond.
At times it felt very strange for such a story to have been woven by a Korean man in his 60s (when I met him it was very difficult to believe he’s now 72!). In other novels I have found Hwang’s female characters unconvincing, with decidedly male-sounding voices coming from female protagonists, but this was not the case with Bari. Her strength is unmistakable, and the matter-of-factness of her voice speaks to all the she has endured to tell her tale.
There are some very harrowing moments in the story, and while I found some of them difficult to read I appreciated the way there were described, sometimes indirectly, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Reading through the novel you sometimes want to cry out in exasperation, how can even more difficulties befall Bari, especially at such a young age, but this is the crux of the old Korean legend of Princess Bari.
When the part of the story that takes place in London is unfolding I was often reminded of Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, but Bari is a very different character, and though it may take place in the same city her odyssey is much more plugged in to the global currents flowing all around her.
One thing in the book which I found quite surprising and potentially problematic is the way hijab is referred to on numerous occasions, and the way in which women can be criticized from different angles both for wearing, or not wearing it. As far as I can remember around the time that Hwang Sok-yong was writing Princess Bari there was a lot of debate going in in Europe about citizenship and women’s right to cover up, so it seems like he has tapped into this, but I am really curious as to what women who have personal experience of this tension might make of the way it is portrayed.
This is a really very ambitious book, touching on so many of the troubles facing our world today, including those which often go on under the radar. At times I felt myself thinking, ‘is he really going to bring in this massive issue too??’, but honestly as a Korean writer, such a wide scope, awareness and concern seems truly heroic and I feel encouraged to know that young Koreans can discover all these global themes in a well-written novel in their own language. For the international reader, well, I’d love to know what other people make of it, being so plugged in to South Korea and Korean culture it’s hard to be objective, but I’m certainly glad I got to meet the 21st century Bari and I’m sure I will be reading the book again in the near future.
Princess Bari is available with free worldwide delivery from the Book Depository