Los estándares coreanos
I write these words from behind a closed door. From the bed in my room, upon which I turn from time to time so my legs don’t fall asleep. I write with a sore throat, heaviness in my chest, a cough. I’m quarantined. By coincidence, I’m writing about Los estándares coreano by Park Min-gyu (Hwarang Editorial, 2021), a book that discusses men who are profoundly alone—in it, the word loneliness appears as many as eighteen times.
I’m going to tell you something you already know: the reading experience is strongly influenced by the time in her life in which the reader finds herself. That’s why I fixated on how alone the characters in this book are. That’s also why I was interested in the relationship between the planes of reality and fantasy in the stories; because more than anything, this situation I’m living in would’ve seemed like something out of a storybook to me three years ago. In fact, it is.
Without wanting to label the text, and although I’ve already seen that several people have referred to it as “fantasy,” I consider Los estándares coreanos to bring together the best aspects of fantastical realism. In the same line as the realistic terror that many contemporary Latin American women authors are stitching—in which scenes of everyday violence cease to be normal in order to acquire their true disconcerting dimension—, Park Min-gyu uses situations of injustice or inequality with a basis in reality and brings them into the realm of the fantastical, demonstrating their senselessness. This is the case in the story “Diga ‘Ah’, pelicano” [“Say ‘Ah,’ Pelican”], in which some Argentine migrants, due to immigration laws, have to cross the ocean on the duck boats of a theme park.
At the same time, the author manages to highlight those aspects of a South Korean—and capitalist—society that seem to be part of fantasy, but which belong to the universe of the real. After reading so many pages with fantastical people and situations, at certain points in the book, one might think that some things are not the case: that to inhabit a bedroom so tiny it forces you to live permanently hunched over or to have a job that consists in pushing people within the cars of the metro are real-world things, although they don’t appear to be. Something that particularly caught my attention—and that, on the other hand, makes up a characteristic of this fantastical realism—is Park Min-gyu’s interest in the metamorphic. In the collection, things are transformed into living beings, animals into things, and people into animals.
On the plane of the real, my favorite aspect speaks to the strong interest that some contemporary South Korean authors have for narrating the universe of work. In this book, there is not a single story where work doesn’t occupy an important place, whether it be the setting or the actual motive of the action. All of the protagonists are college males scholarship recipients, overqualified young people newly arrived in the abyss of the labor market and employed part-time; or, they are established gentlemen enclosed in the robotic spiral that goes from home to office and back again. And by the fact that all of them are boys and men, I should say that perhaps what I liked least about the book was the scarce presence of female characters. With the exception of the Yakult [a popular probiotic drink] saleswoman, the women are absent, passing from mere objects of desire to the figure of the unwanted spouse, as is the case with the partner of the protagonist of the story that gives the collection its title.
At the close of the book, the reflections that have stayed imprinted on me with the most force belong to these two stories: “No me diga. Soy una jirafa” [“Is That So? I’m a Giraffe”] and “Say ‘Ah,’ Pelican.” Both have in common recent graduate protagonists who work jobs they didn’t choose. Both hold the privilege of the external gaze: they are able to observe the society in which they live from the vantage point of employee-client relations. The first image is composed of the faces of passengers squashed against the windows of the metro. The second, of theme park visitors who pedal—very comically—the duck boats. The two protagonists of these stories experience a similar process. When focusing on these everyday postcards, they, at first, feel disgust and an external shame. Later on, sadness and compassion. This ultimately made me think that ambiguity is genuinely human and that the principal characteristic of great characters is precisely their level of ambiguity. And now, excuse me, it’s time for me to change sides of the bed.
Also, I could go for some acetaminophen.
Translated by Lucina Schell
Author, Panza de burro (Barrett, 2020)
Dogs of Summer (tr. Julias Sanches, forthcoming in 2022)
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AUTHORS Park Min-gyu Park Min-gyu debuted in 2003 with two widely-acclaimed novels: The Sammi Superstar’s Last Fan Club and Legend of Earth’s Heroes. He has authored the short story collections Castella and Double, and the novels Ping Pong and Pavane for a Dead Princess. His books in translation include Pavane for a Dead Princess (Dalkey Archive, 2014), Pavane pour une infante défunte (Decrescenzo éditeurs, 2014), and Ping-Pong (Editions Intervalles, 2016).