I first encountered Kyung-sook Shin, a renowned South Korean contemporary writer in her bestseller, Please Look After Mom, from one of my thematic reads. Seeing her seventh novel in English translation during the Manila International Book Fair this year, I did not hesitate to buy it, even the discount was so tiny.
What attracted me into reading I'll Be Right There is the significance of the setting used as the backdrop for the novel. Knowing that the country also underwent Martial Law for years, it hit me closer to home.
The dominant role of Professor Yoon and snippets of European literature added up to the sensitivity of the plot. It captured my sentiments on life and death as the professor imparts his final message upon leaving the university -
Therefore, I leave you all with one final thought: Live. Until you are down to your final breath, love and fight and rage and grieve and live.
Set in 1980s Korea, the protagonist Jung Yoon recounts the memories of her college life triggered by the phone call of an ex-boyfriend after eight years of silence. Some would have guessed that this is a cheesy love story prologue, but what surprised me is the book is anything but. It reflects the lives of the youth on the Gwangju Uprising - the student and citizen protest and fight for democracy after more than 10 years of authoritarian rule.
Some readers may find the prose with the same air as Murakami's Norwegian Wood in using 1970s Zengakuren as literary backdrop, but unlike the Japanese author, Kyung-sook Shin manages it without the aid of sex or magical realism or making the character feign indifference throughout the book. What did the latter wrote are true accounts of deaths and disappearances, and the sharp melancholia brought about by the irony of life an death: participating in a massive demonstration without knowing that your close friend is living her remaining days.
Unlike the first translated work of Please Look After Mom, the prose is of lesser guilt-inducing, and rather ending with a hope of re-connection after a long detachment. This touched the raw emotions of the youth in those days, in dealing with ideology of bringing out the change, and carrying the consequences to it - may it be a loss that will never be restored, or a birth of something new.
A certain good read, as I would say.