‘The Smells, the Octopus'

Elisa Shua Dusapin, trans. Aneesa Abbas Higgins, Winter in Sokcho

Daunt Books, 127pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781911547549

reviewed by Beatrice Tridimas

The Sokcho in Elisa Shua Dusapin’s award-winning novel is not the bustling, bright tourist town on the border between South and North Korea that some know it as. Its neon lights still flash and the stench of fresh fish still hangs in the air but the beach runs bare. Sokcho is waiting:

‘Oozing winter and fish, Sokcho waited.
That was Sokcho, always waiting, for tourists, boats, men, spring.’

Winter in Sokcho is a masterfully crafted tale of identity, alienation and longing, set against the backdrop of a town that, too, seeks reconciliation. Theme exceeds action in this gentle and melancholic reflection of an anonymous narrator who works in Old Park’s guest house, spending her days off in her childhood home where she shares a bed with her mother.

The novel begins with the arrival of Yan Kerrand, a French artist looking to set his final comic book on the shores of Sokcho. Dusapin writes with a unique simplicity, the burgeoning atmosphere built through curt statement and distinct images:

‘He arrived muffled up in a woollen coat.
      He put his suitcase down at my feet and pulled off his hat. Western face. Dark eyes. Hair combed to one side. He looked through me, without seeing me.’

From the very first pages, Kerrand’s Western masculinity subsumes the plot. He is dismissive of the Korean narrator, speaking to her ‘while he looked around for something else,’ choosing his own pen when she offers him a pencil. To him, only Italians know what to do with noodles. He’s an utterly unenthusiastic tourist, Dusapin designing a character insufferable in his own intolerance. He refuses to taste the narrator’s cooking and eats only Dunkin’ Donuts. But despite his constant rejections, for the narrator, he is compelling; her intrigue intensified by a longing for the French father she never knew. At the core of Winter in Sokcho, are questions of identity and belonging:

‘I looked at the image and began mouthing words under my breath in French. Half a sentence. A sound came out of my mouth. I stopped it immediately.’

Dusapin creates a delicate portrait of a woman navigating the peripheries of self, unsure to which identity she belongs. The novel develops through slow, delicate details, through ‘the smells, the octopus. The isolation.’ With the instantaneousness of the Modernist poets, Dusapin captures precise moments in time before swiftly moving on to the next:

‘The waves broke unevenly, hiccoughing. Seagulls poked their beaks in the sand, prancing about to avoid me. Except for one with a limp. I chased after it until it flew off. I thought they looked undignified when they weren’t in flight.

In the Lotte Mart, the only silicon hydrogel contact lenses with my prescription made my pupils look dilated. I bought them anyway.’

Dusapin’s writing reflects the frank disillusionment of her protagonist — she writes with a lyricism absent of romance or fancy, that strikes only at hard-edged reality. Aneesa Abbas Higgins’ translation delivers this lyricism effortlessly, offering lines that are delicious to say aloud:

‘People walking, ageless and faceless, leaving traces of colour behind them, faint imprints in the wet sand. Shades of yellow and blue haphazardly blended, as if by a hand discovering its power.’

Dusapin offers us whole chapters of captivating movement, of the stagnant Sokcho ‘filled with stuffed animals and bouquets of last summer’s flowers. Faded, rotting, imprisoned in ice.’ This is a novel imbued with a sense of desire, delicately crafted through atmosphere and silence.

There’s an almost Oedipal attraction between the narrator and the French artist who emulates her absent father. Within this relationship Dusapin touches on a figurative desire that occurs between a protagonist and an artist: the narrator longs to exist as certainly as Kerrand’s drawings, as a protagonist longs for the life only its creator can bestow:

‘I didn’t want to be his eyes on my world. I wanted to be seen. I wanted him to see me with his own eyes. I wanted him to draw me.’

The narrator desires this solid manifestation of self separately from the reconciliation she seeks between her French and Korean identities. Dusapin makes an important distinction between the self that is ours alone and the self that belongs to culture, history, family. Her fluctuating relationship with food reflects a desire to control a sole, physical self and that being’s desires. Her repugnant need to eat until she is sick, and then never wanting to eat again divulges a desire both to be seen and to disappear, but she can’t choose which:

‘. . . eating frantically, filling this body that stifled me, stuffing myself until I couldn’t breathe, and the more I ate the more I disgusted myself, the more my lips twitched, my tongue fumbled, until I slumped to the ground, drunk on sausage, while my stomach heaved and vomited bile onto my thighs. . .’

Dusapin, like her contemporary, Han Kang, explores female identity through eating and the body. Winter in Sokcho lacks the stark, raw brutality of The Vegetarian, but it isn’t short of graphic, fragmented images of the female form. Dusapin meticulously forms the identity of her narrator piece by piece, ensuring that no female body is seen whole whilst the narrator still lacks a distinct sense of self.

Like many good novels before it, Winter in Sokcho ends with a poignant reflection on art itself. In the last pages, Dusapin captures a final image in ‘the moment of [its] conception.’ She unravels the creative process and the very act of imagination and, in that moment, we form a final idea of our protagonist. Identity, Dusapin tells us, self-conception, is as fluid as the artistic process, constantly evolving away from one set definition. Every word that Dusapin writes is alive with the act of conception. Atmospheric, subtle and utterly entrancing, this is a novel which asks us not only who we are, but how we come to be.

Beatrice Tridimas is a journalist covering tech, climate change and social inequality at the Thomson Reuters Foundation.