Winter in Sokcho
By Élisa Shua Dusapin
(Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)
Open Letter Books — April 2021
ISBN: 9781948830416 — Paperback — 160 pp.
Sokcho: A bustling warm-weather tourist destination of South Korean lakes and beaches. In the winter, Sokcho lies dormant, almost as quiet and isolated as the demilitarized zone that lies mere minutes away, separating life there from North Korea beyond. A young woman in her mid-twenties works at a guest house as a receptionist, having returned home to the town after her studies in Seoul. Her Korean mother works in a town fish market, and her French father is long gone. Though she has a boyfriend, she remains uncertain of his place in her life. Even more, she hasn’t quite figure out who she is, let alone who she should be.
The arrival of a curious guest disrupts the slow and detached days of the unnamed protagonist’s stagnant contemplation as she works reception. The guest is a middle-aged Frenchman named Yan Kerrand, a writer and illustrator of graphic novels who has sought out the cold, barren Sokcho and its environs for inspiration in finishing the final volume of his series. He feels lost of how his character’s story should proceed, and looks to the landscape and conversation for revelation.
The protagonist begins by speaking with him in hesitant English, uncertain to reveal that she is half French, and has learned the language at school, but transfixed by the window that Kerrand might supply to the unknown half of her cultural heritage. Kerrand asks her to serve as a guide of the town for him, explaining his desire to see the ‘real’ Korea, not the tourist trappings.
What follows is a growing friendship and non-sexual intimacy between the two, a discovery between two souls adrift, individuals riddled by doubts who are searching for connections and being seen. Both by others, and by themselves. Coupled to this humanity of characters is the exploration of the Korean landscape at that harsh, scar-like DMZ divide between South and North: two nations with shared heritages, but who have become separated too long to know one another. And as a result, also have lost some conception or understanding of themselves.
Winter in Sokcho is as sparse and desolate of a novel as its setting, but it is not nearly as cold. Dusapin’s writing (and Higgins’ translation) are brimming underneath the glacial, calm plot with powerful emotion, a building, suspenseful atmosphere that something will apocalyptically surge from these characters in a clarity of self-comprehension. Self appreciation is another theme. Both characters, each in their own way, suffer from deficits in self-appreciation and self-confidence. For Kerrand this most overtly exists in his struggles to find appropriate closure to his art, and acceptance that he will reach that based on past successes. For the protagonist it manifests in self-perceived body dysmorphia, her persistent feelings of repulsion to aspects of her physical form, even when realizing unwarranted cause for feeling so.
Though the character’s each come to personal revelations, not all is resolved, no more than the political divide between North and South of the Korean core heritage has resolved back into wholeness.
The strengths of Winter in Sokcho sit in the rich beauty of its language and atmosphere. Both the narrative passages and the dialogue resonate deeply and can be savored. Frequently, that richness tickles multiple senses with descriptions of food. I’ve struggled to come to some sort of conclusion or interpretation of why food figures so predominantly in the novel. How does that relate to the themes? I don’t have a good answer for myself, yet. But, at least on the level of structure the additions work beautifully to render detailed emotional, sense-inducing atmosphere to the novel.
Winter in Sokcho won the Swiss Prix Robert Walser, as well as the French Prix Régine-Deforges. Its translation into English by Higgins recently won the National Book Award for Translated Literature. This is not a novel for readers who demand exciting, intricately designed plots or explosive finales. However, if you enjoy literature of rich atmosphere and language, literature that is simple to read, but complex and evocative when digesting, then this novel is a book you should search out. Support publishers like Open Letter Books for helping bring amazing texts like this to the English-speaking world.