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.