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• Friday, February 24th, 2017

Shin Kyung-Sook was born in 1963 in a village near Jeongeup, north Jeolla Province, in southern South Korea, from humble farmer parents who lacked the financial means to send her to high school. She was the fourth child and eldest daughter of six. At the age of sixteen Shin joined her elder brother in Seoul where she worked at an electronics plant while at the same time attending evening classes.

After graduating as a creative writing major from the Seoul Institute Of Arts, Shin published her first novella “Winter’s Fable” which earned her the 1985 Literary Joongang Newcomer’s Prize.

Shin’s work consists of novels, short stories and non-fiction. She has received several literary prizes and awards and is the most acclaimed writer in South Korea. Please Look After Mother has been translated into several languages and won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. It was originally published in Korean in 2008 and in English in 2011.

Presently Shin divides her timetable between Seoul and New York City, where she teaches as a visiting scholar at Colombia University.

Please Look After Mother starts with the one week missing, sixty-nine-year-old illiterate, hard-working peasant, Park So-nyo, who was with her husband on their way to visit their children in Seoul. She is separated from her husband, who is walking fast, ahead of her as usual, in Seoul’s crowded central railway station. The distracted husband boards the congested train in a hurry while his wife is left behind on the platform.

Park So-nyo’s husband and her four adult children, two sons and two daughters, undertake a thorough search to try to find her. The businessman, Hyong-chol, is the eldest son and the successful novelist, Chi-hon, is the eldest daughter.

Park So-nyo’s disappearance leads to a strange mixed feeling in her family, realising that they didn’t really know her well and took her for granted all these years without showing her any gratitude and without ever devoting time to appreciate the love and sacrifice of this kind, affable and generous woman.

Please Look After Mother, Shin’s sixth novel and her first to be translated into other languages, is a short, powerful and heavily emotional book. It is divided into four chapters plus an epilogue. The first chapter concerns the daughter, Chi-hon and the third chapter belongs to Park So-nyo’s husband. The narration in these two chapters is in the uncommon second-person style which lends the novel a note of personal intimacy as well as a general accusatory tone.

In the second chapter, Hyong-chol, Park So-nyo’s favourite child is the focal point. And by a twist from the author, in the fourth chapter the mother reappears as a ghost – suggesting that she has already passed away – to narrate her side of the story which is the most evocative and lyrical part of the novel.

In the poignant, melodramatic, short epilogue, Shin leads the story through a spiritual path by taking the maternal love and devotion to a higher level, turning it into self-martyrdom worthy of sanctity. The author goes to the extent of comparing Park So-nyo to the virgin Mary in Michael Angelo’s “Pietà” and the novel ends with Chi-hon praying and pleading to the virgin Mary to look after her mother.

Each chapter conveys the thoughts, the feelings, the guilt and remorse of each one of the characters. The different narrations as they unravel gradually, constitute the multifaceted story that forms the full image of the matriarch’s character and illustrates the veracity and inner self of each member of the family.

The reader learns that Park So-nyo is a kind-hearted, tough, resilient and determined, solitary woman who is averse to pity and therefore suffers silently from brain cancer, while her family is too busy ignoring the symptoms of her debilitating, dangerous disease. And although poor and in fragile health, she continues to devote herself to helping the less fortunate than her. She gives assistance and comfort to the destitute Un’gyu, his sick wife and to his newly born baby. She is also a donor and a helper in the local orphanage as well as a devoted, self sacrificing mother and wife.

In Please Look After My Mother, the author tackles an important subject by placing in juxtaposition rural and urban life and their effects on societies by creating an unbalance with the increasing social shift from one to the other : a common preoccupation world-wide, not only in South Korea. Young people from the countryside migrating to the big cities, whether they seek education or work in the hope of a better life. They end up settling in the big city leaving their parents behind and nobody to look after the parents or to take over the agricultural land.

In one of her interviews Shin says about her novel: “We’ve taken it for granted that our mothers are always here beside us and devoted to us. We think they are born to be mothers. But they were once girls and women as we are now. I want to show it through this book. My mother is the energy behind my writings.”

How far back can we remember a human being? And how far does the memory of a mother last? Please Look After Mother is a moving, gloomy story, a hymn and a tribute to maternal love and a contemplation on motherhood. A good insight into Korean culture, values, food, festivals and political changes.

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Author:
• Saturday, June 13th, 2015

Mario Vargas Llosa was born into a middle class family in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, in 1936. His parents were separated a short time before his birth. Llosa spent his early childhood with his mother and maternal grandparents in Cochabamba in Bolivia, being falsely told by his mother that his father had died. Ten years later his parents reconciled, causing an abrupt change to Llosa’s life because, after being pampered by his mother and grandparents, he now found himself with an authoritarian, severe father. In 1947 Llosa went to the Christian middle school, Colegio La Salle.

Discovering his only child’s passion for writing when in his early teens, Ernesto Vargas, Llosa’s dictatorial father, wanting to prevent him pursuing a literary career – which he considered good for idle rich people – sent him to the rigidly disciplined Leoncion Prado Military Academy in Lima. This period will later be described by Llosa in his first novel, The Time Of The Hero, published in 1963 as “the discovery of hell”.

Living in a country led by an oppressive dictator and having a despotic father will make Llosa fight strongly to condemn any stifling, abhorrent dictatorship that suppresses individual freedom in any shape or form.

After dropping out of the academy, Llosa pursued his studies in Piura, north of Peru, while working as a journalist for a local newspaper. In 1953 Llosa studied literature and law at the National University of San Marcos and in 1958 won a scholarship to study in Madrid and later went to live in Paris. Llosa became a journalist, an essayist and a politician, running unsuccessfully in the presidential elections of 1990.

Mario Vargas Llosa is a prolific writer, having written many novels, non-fiction and drama. He has also received numerous awards and honours including the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature about which he was informed in a telephone call received in New York when teaching a semester at Princeton University. He has been married twice and has three children from his second wife.

The Way To Paradise recounts, in alternating twenty-two chapters and by moving back and forth, the historical biographical story of two extraordinary destinies: the post-impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin, and his illegitimate, socialist reformer and feminist grandmother, Flora Tristan. Flora was born to a wealthy Peruvian father and French mother and grew up in poverty following her aristocrat father’s death when she was just four years old. At the time, French law did not recognise her parents’ marriage and consequently she did not inherit her father’s estate as she was considered an illegitimate child.

Flora, who died in 1844 at the age of forty-one, never saw her grandson, Gauguin, born in 1848. Although they didn’t know each other and apart from their kinship, they both had one target, namely to aspire to achieve an insatiable and unrealistic dream in order to reach their much-coveted paradise on earth.

Flora wanted a complete change in the society of her time, where workers were poor, crushed and exploited by factory owners who worked them hard for a pittance in an unhealthy environment, while the destitute women and children were earning half a pittance for the same work. Flora was also campaigning for women to have a dignified and better life, whether they were poor, enslaved women workers or enslaved bourgeois women. Her fight for workers’ rights and women’s equality and emancipation from oppression is unprecedented and well ahead of her time.

In order to achieve her goal, Flora doesn’t spare any effort. She abandons her three children and André Chazal, the husband she detests and who made her hate sex. During the last months of her life she tours incessantly all over France for the sake of promoting her cause, travelling from town to city to recruit members for her Workers’ Union and encouraging workers to unite because unity is strength against the exploiters.

She publishes many works, her best-known being: Peregrinations Of A Pariah, published in 1838, Promenades In London in 1840 and her famous final work, The Workers’ Union in 1843, in which she criticises capitalism and its exploitation of workers in France. She is sometimes made fun of, threatened and rebuked but never gives-up her dream.

As for Gauguin, he quits his successful, well-paid job as a stockbroker in Paris in 1884 at the age of thirty-six and decides to become a full time artist. Soon after he abandons his Danish wife, Mette Gad, and his five children. In order to escape the civilised world, he looks for an unspoilt life in rural Brittany, in Pont-Aven then close by in Le Pouldu where he “went in search of the savagery and primitivism that seemed to him fertile ground for the flourishing of great art”. After a short, unfortunate conflictual cohabitation with Van Gogh in Arles, he travels to Panama followed by Martinique then Tahiti, which he finds a disappointment having been defiled by French colonialism.

Frustrated when realising that things are not as easy as he imagines and that his dream might never be fulfilled, and now consumed by syphilis, he goes to Atuona, Hiva ‘Oa in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia which he thinks has maybe been slightly less spoilt by French colonialism, but to no avail. He spends the last two years of his life there and is buried in 1903 in the cimetière Calvaire, the main cemetery on the island, leaving behind a great collection of paintings, ceramics and wood carvings. Although not given the recognition deserved during his lifetime, after his death Gauguin’s paintings have made him immortal.

Gauguin believed that art had to be subjective to represent the artist’s vision and what goes through an artist’s mind and soul, he said when he was in Le Pouldu near Pont-Aven in Brittany: “Art is abstraction; draw art as you dream in nature’s presence, and think more about the act of creation than about the final result”.

The two lives had their differences: Flora was more concentrated on awakening the working classes to their rights in order to forge a better, brighter future for them, while her grandson, Gauguin, was searching everywhere for the unspoilt, “uncivilised” past. Nevertheless, Gauguin’s life was more colourful and interesting than his grandmother Flora’s, who spent a great deal of her time indefatigably touring in France, organising endless workers’ meetings to recruit support for her workers’ union.

They also had their similarities: Flora and her grandson Gauguin, both rebelled against the establishment and had one objective in mind, their endeavour to liberate themselves from the traditionalist society of their time. They were both obstinately tenacious in their quest, stoically enduring the hardship they encountered as well as both suffering lingering illnesses leading to their deaths. In order to reach their ideals, they both courageously reject the comfortable, bourgeois existence they could have both lived and opt instead for the hard struggle in the hope of attaining their idealistic life.

The Way To Paradise, although slow-moving and repetitive at times, is a well-researched novel. It is a fascinating double biography of a grandmother and her grandson who, through their eagerness, strong ambition and obstinacy, were unstoppable in their endeavours thus leaving their mark on the history of humanity.

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