Snow Hunters
Paul Yoon
(Random House)
Towards the end of the Korean War, the Americans held many North Korean prisoners-of-war. Yohan was one of these. When a truce was reached, the U. S. offered to repatriate him to his home near the Russian border. Yohan refused, stayed on in the medical compound where he helped the doctors and nurses, mopped the floors, speaking to the blind prisoners, describing "the fields and the trees and the clouds."

He found out that soon the medical facility would be packed up, but the U. N. had offered a placement for him in Brazil. "He had never heard that word before." They offered him a job with a Japanese tailor in a town on the east coast of Brazil. "The sun," the nurse behind him said, looking far away where the snow from the trees had begun to scatter. "I bet there's so much sun."

    "Brazil," Yohan said, and the man nodded and the nurse smiled and so he did too.

It was 1954, and after awhile he was in Brazil, in front of the house of the tailor Kiyoshi. Kiyoshi spoke only Japanese, and Yohan knew a little, but it made no difference. The two were men of few words. Kiyoshi led him upstairs to his living quarters:

    The room was above the shop. The ceiling was sloped so that one wall was taller than the other. A single window looked out onto the street. In the far corner there was a mattress on the floor. Closer to the door, along the high wall, there was a bureau, a chair, and a small desk. Again, there was a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. That was all.

§   §   §

As you can tell from this example, the style is the most direct. Short sentences. No frills. Pure narrative. Simple, perhaps like the characters in this tale.

A farmer lad, a Korean from the north, sent to Brazil, where he was to work with a tailor in the warm village by the sea. They would work together for years, with few words, adjourning from time to time to the roof, where they would smoke and look out over the ocean.

Yohan's job was to deliver the repaired clothes, getting to know the village, helping to keep the shop neat, sleeping simply in his simple bed in this simple village. It's all very simple. One is put in mind of Pearl Buck, where whole lives are lived and no one ever screams or gets angry or falls in love and where events drive the characters but the characters don't drive themselves --- no one goes mad or starts a revolution or murders anyone (except in war).

And after awhile you want to scream (or start a war) (or go mad) but the story pothers along and we think that this must be the way the poor and the simple live eat work die. Everything is right out there in the open, and we don't have to worry about moods or madness or why: why Yohan came and why Kiyoshi took him in and gave him a job and why Yohan never did anything bad like get drunk and get in brawls or go looneycakes. It's all very simple, you see: and sometimes it can drive a poor reader to distraction.

Big things happen, yes. But they are downplayed by a refinement of words, boiled down to none but the most elementary acts. Yohan's father is a poor farmer and potter. He dies when Yohan is still young, and "Standing there, in his father's shed, he know that there had been, between them, affection and even tenderness. That his father had never been unkind. That in their silences there had been a form of love."

    Perhaps it would have been different if his mother had lived. Perhaps his father had once been someone else and a wife's death had altered him ... Or perhaps his solitude was always there. He would often wonder about that.

In another review in this issue, we complain about TMI (Too Much Information). Perhaps here we should be complaining about TLI (Too Little Information). Or better, perhaps author Yoon could have given us some more narrative. To show us (rather than tell us) about the emotional lives of Yohan, and his father, and the good tailor.

§   §   §

At exactly the midpoint in Snow Hunters, we find old Kiyoshi trying to mend a child's coat draped on the store dummy. His hands shake. He tries to pin the coat, but the pin drops to the floor. Yohan watches him through a curtain. The old man doesn't know he is there.

When the pin drops to the floor,

    Kiyoshi kneeled and ran his palms along the wood. And then he began to cry, kneeling there with his head bowed and his shoulders shaking.

Later Yohan is to wonder "Why he stayed behind that curtain, watching all this through a narrow space."

    Why he turned soon after and returned to his room, where he lay on his mattress, unable to sleep.

A week later, Yohan goes to seek out Yoshi, but the old man is still in the bed. "Kiyoshi never woke."

    Yohan found him in the morning. He stood in the doorway, waiting, in case he was mistaken. He kneeled. He held the hand hanging over the cot's edge. The hand was riddled with calluses, still warm. He reached for a strand of hair stuck to the old man's lips and pulled it away.

"Kiyoshi was buried in the cemetery behind the church."

§   §   §

There is a certain power in the simple declarative sentence. And here, we think, author Koon is trying to tell us about the lives of those we may never know, the millions of people who live in the city, on the farm, out in the wilderness, in the desert, in the slums. Those who have no spokesman.

They will encounter the Big Events that all of us do: they are born, they grow up, they live, maybe get married, maybe have a love, or a lover, and ... soon enough, they die.

Can we --- those of us who read the newspapers and study psychology and history and math and science and sociology --- can we, or will we, ever know what makes Those Others tick? Are they important? Or are they just another of those in Gray's country churchyard?

Those of us who are of a Romantic persuasion find ourselves taken by Gray's neo-classical language, the language that builds, slowly, in "Elegy on a Country Churchyard" --- leading us to wonder about the commanding figures that may have been born and lived and died in anonymity --- another Napoleon, a "mute inglorious Milton," a Purcell who never learned to compose, a Keats who never learned to write verse: those nameless men and women of the soil who live out their lives unheralded, asleep in their quiet village:

    Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
    The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
    Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
    And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
    Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
    The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
    Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
    Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

Maybe our inchoate Korean was one of these; perhaps the humble Japanese tailor was another potential world-changer ... but they expired unknown and unknowing in this remote shop in far off in Brazil.

§   §   §

Snow Hunters is not without its virtues. It touches the questions that touched Gray. One of the villagers brings Yohan a picture of the Japanese who were interned in Brazil (as in the United States) during WWII. Yohan had never been photographed, "did not know what he would look like, did not know how he would appear on those small pale squares people held and framed and shared."

    Their posture, their stillness. Or perhaps it was knowing that they were no longer of the age when the photographs were taken. That the moment had already gone by the time their images were captured. That people aged, second by second, leaving themselves behind.

This is good writing ... but in the grace of people's lives (those e. e. cummings called 'both great and small") ... these few touches are not enough to sustain us. We want our writers to frame their stories so that we are enchanted, delighted, horrified, or brought to tears by people going through their lives. What we ask of a writer is that he or she should know that simple unburnished lives told simply can sometimes not be enough for those of us who crave a touch of magic.

--- H. J. G. Ward
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