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Cover of the Korean Original

Original Language: Korean
Translator: Kim Chi-young
Year: 2011 (Korean original from 2008)
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nelson
Place of Publication: London
Genre: novel (fiction)
Edition: ebook for Kindle (UK)
Other Editions and Translations:  Amazon US; Spanish Por favor, cuida de mamá; French Prends soin de maman, Italian Prenditi cura di lei; Polish Zaopiekuj sie moja mama. Translations into a total of 29 languages are currently in the planning.

Except for multiple re-readings of all English translations of Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) and Murakami Haruki’s 1Q84 (Books 1 and 2), I have done very little reading of fiction as of late. Then 엄마를 부탁해 (Please Look After Mother) came along: I was, admittedly, already on the lookout for some Korean literature, but this book kept being mentioned everywhere: at various places online, in an MA essay I was marking, and so forth. And then it popped up in the Guardian the other day, in a gallery of books that made it onto the shortlist of the Man Asian Literary Prize (winner to be announced March 15), giving me a final push to purchase and read it.

Park So-nyo, the mother of Please Look After Mother, – age 69, married, five children (one stillborn) – has gone missing at the Seoul Station underground while visiting from the countryside. As she has little knowledge of the city and has been suffering from dementia for some time now, her family is shocked into worry by her disappearance. But it is not only the possibility that something might happen to the elderly woman that is troubling, more so than that it is her absence that gnaws at them, the fact that she is no longer physically present in their lives. All of them have, up to now, taken Mother for granted and allowed her only this one identity – even the husband:

Before you lost sight of your wife on the Seoul Station underground platform, she was merely your children’s mother to you. She was like a steadfast tree, until you found yourself in a situation where you might not ever see her again – a tree that wouldn’t go away unless it was chopped down or pulled out. After your children’s mother went missing, you realised it was your wife who was missing. Your wife, who you’d forgotten about for fifty years, was present in your heart. Only after she disappeared did she come to you tangibly, as if you could reach out and touch her. (p. 132)

It is this realisation of the mother’s absence – or rather, the immense significance of her presence – that is at the heart of the novel. It is explored through various characters as Please Look After Mother is divided into different parts, each one narrated by a family member, including Chi-hon (the older sister, unmarried, stubborn and a writer so deeply immersed in her work that she sometimes refuses contact with anyone), Hyong-chol (the eldest son, shouldering the responsibility of his mother’s failed dreams for him) as well as the husband (a nomadic philanderer who always returns home at some point with expectations of being welcomed there). Only the fourth part is told from the perspective of the disappeared woman, meaning there is also an extended as well as symbolic absence of the mother in Shin’s book: as no voice is given to her for 181 pages, the reader can access her only through the eyes of others, mirroring the faceless existence in her family’s lives prior to her disappearance.

Cover of the ebook (British edition)

The novel provides an account of the futile efforts to search for Mother (there are public sightings that the family learns of only days later, when she has moved on already). Much of the focus, however, is on the memories that the mother’s absence invokes. Described in minute detail, many of these memories are of mundane, of irrelevant and tiny moments, but provide insight into the characters, including the mother. Although the narrative style can take a little while to get used to – in particular the use of second person point of view in several sections (see also “Thoughts on the Translation” below) – Please Look After Mother is an intriguing read precisely because of that level of detail in the memories.  Characters become real, very real. We can relate to them as we witness their raw pain, but are also acutely aware of how flawed they are: the suffering endured from the loss of Mother is, despite everything, an act of selfishness. Individuals long for the old woman’s return to relieve themselves of guilt (the sister-in-law, who always abused and nagged at her, finally admits, “I wanted to say to her that I was sorry about three things before I died”) and to have things return to normal, although family members deceive themselves into believing they would treat Mother differently than before (quote the husband: “If your wife would just come back, you would make not only seaweed soup but also pancakes for her.”).

The mother’s absence then is as if a punishment for the family. Husband, sons and daughters also come to the realisation that they never knew Mother. The blue plastic sandals that people who claim to have seen her say she is wearing symbolise this: they do not match with the shoes that the family believes Mother had on that day she went missing, just like their image of her does not match the new details uncovered about her life – such as the fact that she volunteered time and money at an orphanage for ten years – during their search.

Thoughts on the Translation

Please Look After Mother is the first of Shin’s books to be translated into English. Lacking the necessary language skills, I cannot at this point comment on the quality of Kim Chi-young’s version, but there are still things to note: Several parts of of Please Look After Mother use a second-person narrative, including Chi-hon’s opening segment. This in itself is striking enough. Second person narratives are comparatively rare – various works by Mexican author Carlos Fuentes (including “Aura”, 1961, La muerte de Artemio Cruz/The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1962, and Instinto de Inez/Instinct of Inez, 2001) and Italian author Italo Calvino’s Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 1979) are examples I’m familiar with – as most writers prefer to employ first (“I”) or third person (“he”, “she”). But there is something else to be considered in Korean: grammatically speaking, pronouns are not always required and can be dropped. Pronouns also come in a humble as well as a honorific form. This raises questions:  In the original text, are pronouns (not just the “you”, but also the “he” in parts narrated by other characters) constantly repeated even when they would normally be omitted? And what form is used, the humble or the honorific one?

Side note: I’m not sure what to make of the note “[o]riginally published in slightly different form in South Korea” on the English translation’s copyright page.

Overall verdict: Please Look After Mother is a compelling and moving novel that, through the author’s detailed attention to small, seemingly meaningless moments in people’s lives and the use of multiple points of view, gives thorough insight into a family and reminds us that what we take for granted – or even disregard or look down on – may be what is perhaps most significant in our lives. Very much recommended.

Additional Notes:

  • The novel was highly successful in its native country, selling more than a million copies.
  • Please Look After Mother was also made into a musical in South Korea. Perhaps we can expect a film one day?

Next on my Korean reading list: Kim Young-ha’s 빛의 제국 (Your Republic Is Calling You, 2006, translated by Kim Chi-young). Maureen Corrigan (who also wrote a somewhat controversial review on Please Look After Mother) seemed to hate it, but her words “If, however, you enjoy the cryptic literary acrobatics of Paul Auster, perhaps you won’t be as annoyed by this novel as I was” make me think it will be exactly my kind of book.

Image Gallery: 

  • Various Covers, including another cover for the original (row 2, image 4), several translations and the Korean musical poster (row 1, image 3). Book covers, I think, are interesting to peruse and compare. Note, for example, the clear preference for depicting a young Asian woman’s face, despite the fact that the central character is the old mother. Who is the young woman meant to be in any case? (There are two daughters after all and they are middle-aged rather than as young as the women on the covers.) Note also the parasol on the French cover – it has no relation to the story at all but is merely a clichéd symbol to mark the book as ‘exotic’ and relating a story set in a particular part of the world. Only the original covers (including the musical poster), the Polish cover and the English ebook image (see above) seem to steer clear of stereotyping and other publication tactics.