I have lived in Korea nearly four years, and I will confess outright that this is my first Korean novel. Ever. In my defense, though, finding recommended and well-publicized Korean novels is surprisingly difficult – especially compared to its nearby neighbor Japan, where authors like Murakami have practically become household names. So when “Please Look After Mom” continued to surface in my search engine results, I figured this would be a good place to start.
This book apparently was “the” Korean novel to go international. It has been translated into English (how else could I have read the bloody thing?) and sold over a million copies. Not too shabby. To add to that, the premise is simple yet intriguing enough: a family of six finds their lives turned upside down when their 69-year-old mother, So Nyo, wanders off from their father at a train station and goes missing. I figured it could end up being comedy noir, or whimsical at the very least.
If only that were the case.
The story is told from four different points of view, which grow increasingly jumbled and vague as the novel progresses. The first section is narrated by So Nyo’s oldest daughter, Chi Hon, a high-strung but successful writer. As Chi Hon writes flyers for her MIA mom and posts them around town, she agonizes over her past selfish behavior and starts to blame herself as she revisits what she was doing the day her mom disappeared:
“As your mom’s hand got pulled away from father’s, you were in China. You were with your fellow writers at the Beijing Book Fair. You were flipping through a Chinese translation of your book at a booth when your Mom got lost in Seoul Station…..A few hours after your mom disappeared, you and your group took a taxi to the nighttime city…and, huddled under red lights, tasted 56-proof Chinese liquor and ate piping-hot crab sauteed in chili oil.” (Pg. 11)
Chi Hon’s narrative is in second person, probably to reflect her self-chastisement, yet it can’t help but seem at times like a long-winded reprimand from some Higher Being who represents the Gods of Filial Piety sent to lay bare the decaying family values in South Korea’s topsy-turvy newly Capitalistic society. (“You heathen girl, how dare you be in another country drinking booze while your mother got lost at a train station?”)
As we begin to learn, through Chi Hon’s flashbacks, about the quiet and unobserved life of her mom, So Nyo we find out the first of many dramatic revelations: So Nyo is illiterate. This only adds to the pathos of her situation, and to the contrast with her educated, uppity modern daughter. Growing up, Chi Hon reads and write letters for her poor mother who wants to stay in touch with family. Finally, So Nyo sells a puppy to earn enough money to reward Chi Hon with her very own book. The uppity little daughter’s final choice? “Human, All Too Human,” by Nietzsche. (Ironic title?)
At the start of Section 2 and still no Mom in sight, the point-of-view shifts to the family’s eldest son, Hong Chol. Strangely, this section of the book is entitled, “I’m sorry, Hong Chol,” in the words of his mother (in a flashback memory). Shouldn’t it be Hong Chol saying, “I’m sorry, Mother?” After all, we learn in this section that, in spite of So Nyo’s doting favoritism for Hong Chol (such as making ramen for him while the other kids got zippo), he has disappointed his mom by giving up his goal to be a lawyer to become a real-estate marketing director instead. Keep in mind, y’all, this happened after his mom took a bus for the first time in her life from her country bumpkin home all the way to Seoul, in the freezing night, wearing nothing but sandals on her feet so she could drop off his high school diploma to meet a deadline for a college application.
I admit that up until this point, the novel is still fairly believable and unsentimental – Nietzsche and midnight bus runs aside. We see that Chi Hon and Hong Chol are genuinely decent people who are experiencing a painful realization and regret of past negligence. There is still hope on the horizon, as well as an element of suspense as they frantically search and try to make up for lost time.
Enter Mr. Park, So Nyo’s elderly husband.
From the start the family patriarch, up till now a quiet figure, comes forward in the spotlight to undergo the most intense bout of mental and emotional self-flagellating I’ve witnessed since reading Dostoevsky. He hasn’t exactly been the most “grateful” of husbands, and has left every single chore and task to his wife, along with ignoring her increasingly painful migraines and yet expecting her to attend to him the moment he has a minor tummy ache. As he wanders through their now-empty house, he is tortured by his thoughts:
“How could you have taken what your wife did for you for granted, without ever once making her seaweed soup? …
Where are you…? If your wife would just come back, you would make not only seaweed soup but also pancakes for her. Are you punishing me…? Water pools in your eyes.” (pg 82).
Apparently, the douchebag has also had an affair with another woman, and was gone for several months at one point. He comes back alone, but doesn’t bother to apologize. He has never voluntarily held his wife’s hand in his entire life, except when he dragged her away from her mother’s home after a domestic incident (like that counts). Oh, and add to that the fact he has never so much as fetched her a glass of water.
It doesn’t help that his older sister has voluntarily taken upon herself the role of “in-law from hell,” at one point accusing So Nyo of “selfishly” chopping down an old family tree to make a fire while she languishes in childbirth in the dead of winter. It is also in this section that we learn that So Nyo, alone and undervalued forms a friendship with her husband’s younger brother Kyun. Kyun adores So Nyo, and at first we think he’s going to be the silver lining in her mundane existence, but in proper melodramatic style he takes off in search of a job with more money and comes back four years later so depressed that he kills himself. Even more dramatically appropriate is the fact that for some reason every one in town seems to think Kyun’s death is her fault, and she descends into paranoia and psychological trauma. Even at this point in their life together her husband does little to offer any moral support.
With this poignant backdrop in mind as he staggers down memory lane, So Nyo’s husband crumples into a sobbing mess. The final climactic moment is when, alone in his room at night, he sees a box on top of the dresser and opens it up to reveal the shrouds his wife had prepared for her and him upon their death. He recalls that she had “encouraged” him to die earlier than her, since she was dutifully resigned to taking care of him for the rest of his life and figured (correctly) that he’d be a hot mess on his own. The twisted irony calls for an encore of fresh sobs.
The last section of the book is told from the point-of-view of So Nyo herself…although it’s not clear that she is still alive. In fact, she conveniently is able to float from place to place invisible and observe her friends and family members grieving, all the while in her simplistic voice questioning why they are being so sad and frowny-faced when, good heavens, all she wanted for them her whole life was to be happy!
At one point she transforms into a bird (don’t ask), sitting on a tree branch outside her youngest daughter’s home, watching her daughter and granddaughter stare back at her through the window. It’s in this last section that we learn that So Nyo’s youngest daughter is made up of more sensible stuff than her uppity writer sister Chi Hon, but Younger Sister “threw away” her educational opportunities to have three children instead of a career. Nevertheless, the narrator seems to favor the youngest daughter over the rest of the kids as an example of industry and caring and the family member most closely resembling her saintly mother – even though she confesses later to Chi Hon, “I can’t give [my kids] my entire life like Mom did.” (Pg. 138).
And that’s what it boils down to: a gigantic, irreparable generation gap that forever renders the deserving yet unappreciated, martyred mother who sacrificed everything and yet is alienated from her brow-beating, guilt-consumed children who have realized too late that:
“She didn’t have the opportunity to pursue her dreams and, all by herself, faced everything the era dealt her, poverty and sadness, and she couldn’t do anything about her very bad lot in life other than suffer through it and get beyond it and live her life to the very best of her ability, giving her body and her heart to it completely.” (Pg. 139).
It’s almost striking how lucid and textbook-like the narrative has become at this point. Rather than a warning to others who might gratefully learn through this story and not the hard way, it is almost a resigned, matter-of-fact sort of statement about the generation gap in South Korea and the unavoidable point it has come to. It would seem that So Nyo is in fact every grandmother in Korea, and just as she disappeared in the crowds too late for her family to thank her, so it is already too late for us to properly thank our mothers and grandmothers who have selflessly sacrificed their entire lives for our betterment.
As the family continues to fall apart and slowly lose their sanity toward the book’s conclusion, Chi Hon makes an impromptu pilgrimage to Vatican City where she comes face-to-face with Michelangelo’s Pieta. Clutching a rosary in her hand – a souvenir for her mother who will never be able to receive it – she crumples in front of the statue, in a final scene of filial pious melodrama, and utters a prayer to the Mother of all mothers: “Please Look after Mom.” And so the novel has neatly come full circle to its title.
While I do not agree with the fatalistic and woebegone message of Shin’s now-international bestseller, I do have to begrudgingly admit that she does give her readers a stinging reminder to not let their own mothers and grandmothers become unsung heroines like So Nyo. Perhaps a more positive emendation to the title would be, “Please Don’t Forget to Give Mom a Call.” I’m sure the world would be a little bit better of a place if we all picked up our phones and sent a warm, thankful message of acknowledgment right now, and I’m sure Ms. Park would agree.
But that doesn’t mean I’ll be recommending this sentimental hankie-fest of a novel to anyone anytime soon.