(This is the eighth in a series on modern Korean literature newly published in superb English translations.)
ANDREA PLATE WRITES – Who could possibly find humor in severed heads, natural disasters and mass graves? South Korean author Yun Ko Eun does, as will any reader of the English language version of her novel, The Disaster Tourist (Counterpoint), published just this month in the US.
In some ways, Yun, now 40, stands in solidarity with her sister authors of the post-2018 #MeToo movement. She’s highly educated (a graduate of Dongguk University), prolific (has authored several novels, plus three short story collections), is highly-regarded by the literary establishment (winner of multiple prestigious South Korean awards), and is both feared and favored for her full-frontal assaults on male dominance and female oppression.
What sets her apart is humor. So many contemporary South Korean feminist writers are pillars of pathos: surrealist Bae Suah (Untold Night and Day), Hye-young Pyun (The Law of Lines) and Cho Nam-Joo (Kim Ji-young, Born 1982), for example. Not Yun. Her weapon of attack is social satire. Her style is fun and free-flowing. It will make you giggle and guffaw, but not laugh until you cry.
Yun is a comic virtuoso. Consider the wickedly entertaining plot of The Disaster Tourist: Yuna is a program coordinator for Jungle, a firm specializing in 33 types of “disaster tours”– (a/k/a poverty porn) — travel packages for which culture vultures pay steep sums to see exotic tragedy sites like godforsaken earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and bombs. Writes Yun, of her Yuna: “Calamity was her job.”
Now Yuna faces the challenge of her ten-year career: to save a one-time top ticket item, the Desert Sinkhole disaster tour, from death by budget cuts. Once, this was a fabulous tourist spot with a two for-the-price-of-one appeal: two historic tragedy sites (inter-ethnic cleansing and a man-eating sinkhole) — at a one-stop shop on the island of Mui, off the coast of Vietnam. But the tide has turned. The sinkhole has sunk. Rains have turned it into a lake. And so, Yun writes, “only thirsty people dig wells. Mui was a thirsty island planning a huge scam to survive, creating holes out of nothing.” Thus begins the great Mui make-over.
What hard work! A long, wacky cast of characters is hauled in to save the sinkhole. First, the tourists: thrill-seekers who deem toothbrushes “too ordinary;” adventurers who demand, in addition to the usual shock and awe, feel-good volunteerism stints and history lectures; a cranky five-year-old girl, globe-trotting with her schoolteacher-mother since age one, who just can’t stop complaining: “Where are the cut-off heads?” she whines.
To the rescue, another set of characters — disaster artists who recreate and re-enact tourist-trap tragedies. Among them: scriptwriters [specialists in calamity plots]; prop men and women who craft severed heads; electricians who install huts with bulbs “that drooped like the tongue of someone who’d hanged himself;” and locals hired as actors to recite ominous warnings, stage civil wars, then fall, “accidentally” and on purpose, into a newly man-made sand crater.
Meanwhile, Mui’s real-life, non-performing residents are shunted off stage — banned from the island during tourist season because, it is explained, “they are just poor, so they can’t pay taxes.”
Is this all too ridiculous to produce solid laughs? Does author Yun’s imagination run too wild and far from the course of plausible reality? Not really, or not by much. Consider that an actual ad for travel to Cambodia today touts “…a former high school that became the Khmer rouge torture center, where countless people were killed … a pagoda made up of some 8,000 human skulls of one of the infamous Killing Fields.” Plus, at day’s end, “Khmer snacks!”
Yun’s writing alternates between sledgehammer satire and sly, salty, subtle provocations. The elevator descends just as her boss’s private parts rise to the occasion of her hand on his crotch (forcefully placed there by the boss himself, of course). Sexual harassment seems a small price to pay to avoid unemployment; Yun’s deepest fear is that her boss targets only women who will soon be fired; is she next? Bitter advice from the chief of human resources –“put the issue behind you” — sweetens when the two down soju together. Always, Yun’s humor serves to underscore, and never undermine, the seriousness of sexism and female oppression in South Korea.
At times, to hone a point, Yun plays it straight…almost. “It’s too scary to visit disaster destinations close to home,” explains leading lady Yuna. “Don’t we need to be distanced somewhat from our ordinary lives… in order to see the situation more objectively?” At the novel’s end, wracked with guilt for being a pain profiteer, Yuna stumbles down her own personal sinkhole: “she faced a greater disaster: her feelings,” writes Yun. “…her emotions were a landmine that could explode at any moment.” (They do, of course).
Post-script: Yun is not, really and truly, the sole author of this explosive novel. Of all her writings, this is the first to be translated into English. Where would Yun be without the superbly talented translator Lizzie Buehler? She tells you, in her afterword, of her gratitude that Buehler and The Disaster Tourist exchanged “cosmic winks…. If she hadn’t, by chance, picked up and translated this book, it might not have left Korea.” Buehler manages to decode not “just” the author’s words but her sophisticated heart, soul and comic gifts.
The Disaster Tourist is a perfect pandemic read. Planning a staycation? Why not a “disaster staycation?” You can get there by way of this novel, in the quarantined comfort of home. It’s an irresistible bargain with lasting value.
Andrea Plate, Asia Media International’s senior editor for writing and editing, holds degrees in English Literature (UC Berkeley), Communications-Journalism (USC) and Social Welfare/Public Policy (UCLA). Her college teaching experience includes Fordham University and Loyola Marymount University. Her recent book, MADNESS: In the Trenches of America’s Troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, about her years as a staff social worker at the U.S. Veterans Administration, was published in Asia and North America by Marshall Cavendish Asia International.