Book #9. The Calligrapher’s Daughter. By Eugenia Kim.

It takes a certain kind of talent to take a depressing subject and write about it without being depressing. For that I take my hat off to Eugenia Kim for her debut novel, The Calligrapher’s Daughter. I also have to admit it helps to read when you go in with low expectations.

After Kyung Sook Shin’s would-be tearjerker Please Take Care of Mom, I was a bit gun-shy about Korean authors. I searched for different novels in the field but came up dry. There were options, of course – but the topics ranged from dark to downright visceral, and the titles themselves weren’t the most encouraging (I Have the Right to Kill Myself – sounds lovely, doesn’t it?).

When the search engines finally led me to this novel, I took heart. The setting is Japan-occupied Korea at the turn of the century, but the protagonist is a girl from an elite family with dreams and goals of her own notwithstanding. The challenging (and sometimes tragic) events throughout are counterbalanced with hope and triumph. Many elements of the novel are actually based on the Korean-American author’s own parents, which adds a dimension of historical genuineness.

Han Na Jin is our protagonist. Technically, she doesn’t have a real name. “Najin” is her mother’s hometown, and this has become the name she goes by. Her father, the proud aristocratic scholar Han, has refused to name her out of defiance to the Japanese colonial regime, which has attempted to erase all Korean culture including male primogeniture. Because she was born at almost exactly the time Japan annexed Korea Han has a hard time even looking at his daughter without being reminded of failure and broken dreams – and of course, the fact she’s a girl and not a boy.

Initially the character of Najin seems almost embarrassingly cliché in her role as well-meaning but wayward daughter, as does her father in all his patriarchal demands. Najin tells us of her childhood:

I wasn’t a perfect daughter. Our estate overflowed with places to crawl, creatures to catch and mysteries to explore, and the clean outside air, whether icy, steamy or sublime, made me restive and itching with curiosity.

Not unlike a modern Disney princess she fumbles good-naturedly to fit into the mold her understanding mother and stern father have placed her in. From Najin,’s view, there is indeed more to life than stifling traditions in the midst of an enemy-occupied homeland.   She takes heart to pursue a daringly feminist path (for her time), partly encouraged by her accomplished young role model teacher Yee:

You must never stop learning and asking questions. A woman’s life is hard. Without a husband it’s almost impossible. But nowadays, with education, a single woman such as myself can at least be of some help to her family.

With convictions like this, Najin naturally begins to dream of loftier goals – perhaps even entrance into Ehwa University.

Once we see things from her father Han’s point of view, however, the picture is very different. In fact, reading from Han’s perspective I could not help but think of Okonkwo from Things Fall Apart simply trying to hold together the social fabric and everything in life as he’s known it. While stubborn and prideful like Okonkwo, Han also proves over time to be more adaptable, as well as introspective:

Was it not a mark of personal failure that so much had been lost during his generation? He wasn’t prone to sin, though pride was a struggle, and he acted rightly and responsibly all his life. Still the stain was there, and he prayed it was contained in him alone.

Then there is Haejung, wife to Han and mother to Najin, who must exercise the ultimate balance between following tradition to appease her husband, and realizing her own dreams by helping her daughter receive the education and opportunities she herself never had. All three – Najin, Han and Haejung – will watch some dreams fall apart while other dreams are fulfilled – although not always in they way they imagined.

The story becomes progressively more interesting when a brother, Ilsun, (and thus “heir”) joins the family, only to turn out far more stubborn and willful than Najin. In the meantime, Haejung, at the expense of Han’s wrath, disrupts his plans to marry off their daughter by sending Najin away to train under her eminent aunt for a position in the royal court. The tide turns again when the royal family and staff are sent into exile, and Najin returns home to start over.

Still in Disney princess mode, Najin is somewhat determined to remain single and focus on helping her family out. Her equally stubbornly parents have different designs and set her up with a pastor-in-training, Calvin Cho. The intellectual Najin surprises herself by falling for Calvin and agreeing to marry him. She packs up her bags to accompany him to America, only to find herself separated from him at the visa checkpoint border when the Japanese officials refuse to accept her documents. From here follows the ultimate test of faith and sanity as Najin remains in Korea in the face of oncoming war, waiting for a trans-oceanic husband who may or may not forget her in the process of time.

Although Kim is no literary pioneer – and it’s worth adding she does not write with the airs of one – she deserves praise for the panoramic view she takes of Najin’s family, rather than focusing solely on the character of Najin. Han, Haejung, Ilsun, Calvin, and a host of other more distant relatives, sympathetic friends as well as more ambiguous characters at turns intrigue, surprise and even delight us as we realize they’re not just there to make a point about some kind of lofty idea. Each character is three dimensional (even the insufferable philanderer Ilsun).  You don’t blindly hate or love anyone, and better yet, you like people you don’t want to like.

On a drier but important note, the historical insight is absolutely fascinating, especially when it comes to understanding the conditions of Japan-occupied Korea. Like a well-seasoned dish, Kim provides enough details and plot events of tragic nature to create sharp and bitter sensations, but there’s more than enough hope, redemption and reprieve to make up for it.  There is an inevitable sense of loss and nostalgia, especially through Han’s eyes, but never in a sentimental way.

Perhaps just as interesting as the vivid depiction of Japan’s influence and the approaching war is the novel’s scrutiny of Korea’s rapidly changing social structure and culture, including Christianity’s absorption of Confucianism. The scholar Han represents tradition and orthodoxy: he adopts Christianity only as he sees it compatible with Confucian values. Haejung, like many other Koreans, looks to the Christian faith as a beacon of hope in a world of chaos – and she has raised her children to believe the same. Najin herself is no rebel, but she struggles to keep faith in the face of “unfair” events, even as she respects her open-minded but devout pastor husband.

While believers and atheists alike may argue till the cows come home on whether prayers are really answered, Najin imparts her final impression on why she was able to triumph in the face of her adversity:

As for me, I realized it wasn’t the answers I was seeking all those years that mattered as much as the act of seeking itself. It was incredible, this human capacity for learning, for hope, for love, that persisted like the box of light in my cell…It was beyond my understanding.

 The Calligrapher’s Daughter appears predictable and begins in a predictable enough way, but soon transforms into a rich and complex story full of surprises and ultimately, resolution. If novels had their own flavors, then compared to the putrid acidity of a postmodern Nihilist story The Calligrapher’s Daughter is one of those 80% cocoa chocolate bars you see on the impulse shelf at the Trader Joe’s checkout counter. In other words, bittersweet but very much satisfying.








Book #6. Naomi. By Junichiro Tanizaki.

‘Lolita’ meets ‘Pygmalion’ in Roaring 20’s Tokyo

There’s a story behind this book.   It changed hands four times: starting from a friend of a friend in the US, it ended up on my shelf in Korea three years ago. My old chum Michelle, who gave it to me, said it had basically turned into a tradition. The strange tale of Naomi and her befuddled husband Joji could not be unshared – it was too novel, too delightful and outrageous.

Not everyone liked it, according to the personal note left on the cover page. Even Michelle herself hesitated to say it was “great.” So I read Naomi (pronounced “NAH-oh-mee”) with no real expectations. I was caught off guard both by the quietly hilarious main character and Tanizaki’s delightful, frank writing style.  It grew on me like a guilty pleasure pop song. I have now read it twice, and confess I sort of love this book.

28-year-old Kawai Joji is a humble and hardworking engineer who lives a somewhat boring life. All that changes one day when he meets a young girl named Naomi working in a café. Naomi bears a striking resemblance to actress Mary Pickford and from the first moment our cinema-loving antihero is captivated. Joji is the awkward loner type who has no knack for social norms and Naomi is a waif on the fringes of society. The two “outcasts” find refuge from the normal world and move into a whimsical little house together with a garden and courtyard. A few years later they marry.

If it sounds like an idyllic tale frothed with romance, guess again. Joji introduces his story better than any commentator could.

I’m going to try to relate the facts of our relationship as man and wife just as they happened, as honestly and frankly as I can. It’s probably a relationship without precedent… I’m sure my readers will find it instructive, too. As Japan grows increasingly cosmopolitan, Japanese and foreigners are eagerly mingling with one another; all sorts of new doctrines and philosophies are being introduced; and both men and women are adopting up-to-date Western fashions. No doubt, the times being what they are, the sort of marital relationship that we’ve had, unheard of until now, will begin to turn up on all sides.

 Joji is fascinated but intimidated by the west – so is much of 1920’s Japan. His relationship with Naomi often runs parallel to Japan’s relationship with the west. If you can get your head above the outrageous drama of the story you can glean some excellent cultural insight. A good novel, like a good cake always comes in rich layers.

Joji himself is a strange mixture of progressive and patriarchal. He abhors the stuffy conventions of Japanese culture and instead of having a sexual relationship with Naomi right away (she is only fifteen) he agrees to first live with her as “friends.”

However from the beginning is a notion in Joji’s mind that Naomi will ultimately become a trophy:

On the one hand, I was motivated by sympathy for her. On the other, I wanted to introduce some variety into my humdrum monotonous daily existence…Indeed, why not build a house, I thought, even a small one? I’d decorate the rooms, plant flowers, hang out a birdcage on the sunny veranda, and hire a maid to do the cooking and the scrubbing. And if Naomi agreed to come, she’d take the place of both the bird and the maid.

Together Joji and Naomi move into an eccentric old house, with no servants or guests to bother them. They pass the days “playing” childish games, eating take out food and shopping for cheap kimonos. Naomi calls Joji “Papa” and he gives her baths in the kitchen tub. It’s a rather…unique situation, to say the least.

Joji’s hope and design is to turn Naomi into a “fine, young woman,” one he can show off to others. He invests in English and music lessons for her, at the same time showering her with clothes and presents. But just as you’d expect in the case of a spoiled teenage daughter, Naomi starts to defy Joji’s ambitions for her. She sulks during her English lesson. She complains she doesn’t have enough clothes and she won’t even wash out the rice pot.  So much for replacing the maid and the bird.

Here begins the story’s transition into dark comedy and perhaps one of the most twisted yet compelling looks I have ever had at a male-female relationship in literature. The more Naomi annoys and defies Joji, the more he finds her delightful. To save face he teases her and refuses to take her seriously. In a sobering flashback he confesses his misguided judgment.

It’s often said that “women deceive men.” But from my experience I’d say that it doesn’t start with the woman deceiving the man. Rather, the man, without any prompting rejoices in being deceived; when he falls in love with a woman, everything she says, true or not, sounds adorable to his ears…He has no intention of being misled by her. On the contrary, he laughs to himself that he’s deceiving her.

What Joji doesn’t realize is that Naomi is no kitten. She is in fact, a moga – a Japanese modern girl.

I was delighted to learn that well before World War II Japan experienced its own version of the Roaring Twenties. A moga, a Japanese version of a flapper, was a woman who donned Western clothing and lifestyles. Joji is fascinated by both Naomi and the moga world, but can’t help at times feel that he’s betraying his motherland. He also can’t help but wonder if his colleagues at work are beginning to suspect something’s fishy as his personal life spirals out of control.

When outrageous clothes and movies aren’t enough Naomi drags Joji downtown with her to take dance lessons. In 1920’s Imperial Japan this is not unlike going to a rave party.   Joji meets the enchanting dance instructor who also happens to be a Russian countess in exile and falls further in love with the bohemian way of life (and with Naomi).  He is glad that he has once again caved to stubborn Naomi’s wishes.

However, the Russian countess is not the only new character to make an appearance. Joji soon meets a host of rather unsavory folk, including a macho hotshot named Kumagai, and they all appear to already be well acquainted with Naomi. Joji has an uneasy feeling about it all. But even our humble country bumpkin narrator has no idea just how crazy things are going to get.

It takes a certain amount of talent to make a book about unlikeable people likable. Tanizaki is a master of it – at least he is with this novel.  Joji is unexpectedly lovable as the self-deprecating, “snaggle-toothed” narrator who doesn’t shrink from admitting his blunders. He’s painfully uneducated in the arts and literature, yet he is in love with movies and theater. He doesn’t have many literary references up his sleeve, but when he does, he tries to make them relevant. At one point he compares himself to Marc Anthony being taken in by Cleopatra, based on a cautionary history lesson he remembers in high school.   His endearing humanness is what makes the novel special.

By the end Joji is no closer to realizing or resolving anything than he was what he started off.

 If you think that my account is foolish, please go ahead and laugh. If you think there’s a moral in it, then, please let it serve as a lesson. For myself, it makes no difference what you think of me; I’m in love with Naomi.

While some readers may be irked that Joji can still remain so bemused I actually love this about him – and about the novel. He has no pretense or sermon to give about the things that have happened. He invites the reader instead, to make what they will of his strange plight.

The English poet Sir Philip Sidney once wrote that poetry – and by extension, fiction – “affirms nothing”; therefore “it cannot lie.” Perhaps Tanizaki shares a sentiment similar to Sidney. Somehow there is something quite appealing in a story that just gives the facts and lets you derive your own meaning. Joji may be a stooge in some ways, but he never talks down to his readers.

Whether you want to read Naomi as a commentary on dysfunctional relationships, shifting cultural values, a sensational romp, a history lesson, or a comedy  I doubt if Kawai Joji could care less. And frankly I don’t either. I just know that this is a delightful, hilarious book on many levels that will leave you with someone new to think about each time you read it. Who knows, maybe it’ll even make you want to take dance lessons.