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SumHan Yu-joo

Don’t write. I’ve even forgotten how to start with the beginning. I don’t know if it can be said to be a beginning, that is, start, before even starting, that there is a beginning. What does this mean then? I shouldn't do this again. I can’t. Start like this again, no, I shouldn’t start by saying that I can’t start (p. 7).

『Sum』

Author : Han Yu-joo
Publisher : Literary Lab (Munhak Silhumsil)
Publication date : November 5, 2020
Number of pages : 128
Format : 115x183mm
ISBN : 9791197085420

Han Yu-joo

Born in 1982 in Seoul, she debuted in 2003 through Literature and Society. Her works include the short story collections Book of Ice and Chronicle as well as the novel The Impossible Fairy Tale. She has been a recipient of the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, Kim Hyeon Literary Award, among others.

Those Left Behind

 

My friend died. It was a suicide, and the death was carried out. “I” heard of the friend’s death, in a quiet café near school “a sunny day in spring”(p. 13), no, “a sunny day in fall”(p. 14), no, “a summer’s day where the heat yet lingered”(p. 17), no, “a chilly day in spring”(p. 39), no, more precisely, in the afternoon of “the first Friday in March” (p. 45). The statement of a narrator-liar who destroys the narrative and dismantles language cannot be believed. You’ll never know when it will change again.  As one is well aware, Han Yu-joo’s narrators do not have a flair for narration. To “tell the story you need to cut” and change the sequence and the arrangement, being proficient in “cutting, pasting, trimming, and piecing things together so no stitches show” (p. 64). However, the novel’s protagonists have never succeeded in such an “economic usage of language” (p. 65). Since narratives that have never been completed are not used, they always carry the potential for change (in that respect, Han Yu-joo has crossed the boundary of narrative). However, the flair for narration and fidelity to the event (Alain Badiou) may not be proportional, so the process of retrieving the moment of hearing of a friend’s death, by writing, erasing, and writing and erasing again, is the ethical response of the subject towards writing “in a proper way, using proper language.” The “I” of Sum, criss-crossing between the imperative and the interdiction of writing, is in the course of completing syntax one at a time. I have lost my syntax, but I’m afflicted with it. It seems that the work of dissecting and rummaging through the totality of languages that cannot exceed the event is what constitutes Han Yu-joo’s fiction writing.

Returning to the story, “I” am informed, the first Friday of March one year, of my friend’s death, and after finishing lectures at a university in Ansan, pass the Seohaean expressway on to the Seobu urban expressway, on the way to Severance Hospital in Sinchon. I saw a dead pigeon near the Iljik junction. In the process of reconstructing memory, the pigeon was for several weeks “dying” on the roadside (Here, it’s important to note that death is expressed not as a one-time event but as a persistent state. It is not a noun but a verb, not in the perfect tense but in the progressive. This is because a death in the progressive keeps “me” in an uncomfortable ongoing state, while delaying mourning, continues it, and perpetuates it as a case not yet closed. This may also be the reason Han Yu-joo’s novel is narrated through reminiscence in the present tense. It is because what happened in the past is still happening in the present, and though the subject and the name of events may differ, they are all either “me” or “you”). The pigeon’s death serves as a medium for the death of a beloved dog, and the dog’s death carries the death of my friend (though that death is not clear, but the similarity in the narration about the dog and that of my friend might perhaps serve as evidence) and turning muddled syntax into a discourse. So, the central narrative of this novel (though the author will probably hate this) is the writing and erasing that pauses and splits up the time on the road to the death of a friend through the recalling of other deaths. Other deaths lie along the way to mourn death. The mourning is postponed, and another mourning takes place. One death calls to mind another death, and the death and dying of dogs and pigeons delay (or perpetuate) mourning through “present reminiscence” (p.101).

So I ask again. Why do “I” write and erase, write and erase again? I looked it up and found the author had already left the following monologue:

I’ve been growing old neglecting countless deaths. So it was in the face of the deaths of friends, and so it was after their deaths. So it was also when it wasn’t the deaths of my friends. I closed my eyes, and my ears, and my mouth. I lived that way for a few years. I don’t really remember before that, nor do I want to. But now, has the beginning started? It would have started anyway. So, let’s start. (…) I couldn’t write anything about his death. But now I have to, even if writing doesn’t change anything. I’m not saying I’ll write about my friend’s death, it’s about the deaths I’ve been neglecting that I’d write, but I’ll probably give up halfway. And I’ll probably make excuses about how I’ve even forgotten how to start the beginning, but so, nonetheless, however, then I’ll start over again. Regardless, you have to write, someone said. – From “private barking” (pp. 11-13).

“I” will write and erase, write and erase about “the deaths that have been neglected” while recalling again and again the road to mourning the death of a friend. Regretting that “I should have shown some interest when they lived” (p. 25), I will write and regret, write and erase as I pass once more through the Seobu urban expressway, where I didn’t stop to bury the pigeon. The novel will continue to be written, invalidating preceding sentences. Clearly “I” will, despite the persistent dissuasion of another “I,” talk of the death of dogs and pigeons, about myself, about my friend’s death and my suicide, and the aftermath of someone’s suicide. Because of this, the author’s graft will keep being difficult and time-consuming, but at least it seems unlikely that suicide will be carried out. Because the act of mourning won’t be finished.

 

By Kim Young-sam
Literary critic



Translated by