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Pavane for a Dead Princess by  Park Min-gyu – A bittersweet Korean novel

March 3, 2019 8 comments

Pavane for a Dead Princess by Park Min-gyu (2009) French title: Pavane pour une infante défunte. Translated from the Korean by Hwang Ju-young and Jean-Claude de Crescenzo.

For February, our Book Club read was Pavane for a Dead Princess by Korean writer Park Min-gyu. The book opens on a poetic scene. Two lovers meet up on a snowy day, they barely speak, too overwhelmed by their reunion. He wasn’t sure she would be there. The scene seems to come out of In the Mood for Love.

Then we go back one year in time. The narrator, who will remained unnamed, briefly evokes his childhood. His father was a struggling actor supported by his wife. She’s plain, too plain and simple to have such a handsome and lively husband. Success comes and wife and child are discarded as yesterday’s paper. They don’t fit in this man’s glamorous new life and they are erased from it. The narrator’s mother collapses, goes back to her hometown and the narrator stays by himself in Seoul.

We’re in 1986, he’s 19. Soon, he drifts away. He’s still in high school but drops out and starts working in the underground parking lot of a large department store. He works in the fourth underground level, in the bowels of the department store and helps shoppers park their car. He befriends Yohan who makes sure the narrator stays appointed to this level. There are downtimes at this level and Yohan and the narrator have time to speak.

They start having drinks in a bar named Kentucky Chicken. They meet there, talk, and eat a lot of fried chicken. (Fashionable food in Korea in the 1980s, according to the translator) Yohan and the narrator were both in dire need of a friend.

Then the narrator, who inherited his father’s good looks, falls in love with an ugly coworker. With a touching sensitivity, Pavane for a Dead Princess tells the tentative romance between the narrator and the girl, who remains unnamed too. She can’t believe he’s genuinely interested in her since she’s so unattractive. But they have a connection. They are both thrown in life without a proper toolbox. He hasn’t really recovered from the collapse of his parents’ marriage. That’s his baggage. She’s ugly and Park explains clearly it impacts her life. People stare at her on the streets, she cannot find a proper job and she has no hope of marrying. That’s her baggage. Yohan is their porter, he lifts their baggage off their backs long enough for them to walk towards each other.

Pavane is a difficult book to describe. Nothing much happens but the slow and deep romance between the two protagonists. Not much is described, little brushes here and there and the reader knows that behind shy looks and conversations, a solid relationship is taking roots. Both are out of the Korean mainstream: they don’t want –or can’t—invest in looks and appearances. They don’t want to keep up appearances. That makes them outsiders. And Camus is one of the authors that the narrator reads and likes. The narrator feels as detached about his life as Meursault. The girl grounds him. He has to tame her like the Fox in The Little Prince, another recurrent literary reference in the book.

This brings us to another key aspect of Pavane: the cult of beauty and the mad race of consumerism. Park portrays Korea and Seoul in the 1980s, as a negative of the narrator. He’s a high school dropout in a dead-end job. He lives alone with his cat and has only one friend, Yohan. He doesn’t go with the flow of the country. Korea is in the 1980s as all Western countries are. People want to earn more money, to be successful and show off their cash through material possessions. It was the time Madonna sang Material Girl. Their goals are dictated by raging capitalism. A good degree. A demanding but well-paying job. A big car. A big house. A partner who works just as hard and children who enter competitive schools. And good looks.

Capitalism is taking over and the narrator lives on the fringe. Park is very critical about the impact of capitalism on people’s lives and on their artificial need to buy more and more. It’s an empty race to buy the next shiny thing publicity tells you you must have. In a way, Pavane is a subversive book with main characters who refuse to play by society’s rules.

Pavane is full of Western cultural references. Its title is a piano piece by Maurice Ravel. Music is important throughout the novel as the narrator describes his state of mind via songs. I put up a playlist while I was reading and it really suits the atmosphere of the novel. Chapters are named after songs or lyrics and it’s mostly Western music that our characters are listening. Classical music, classic country, the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Pavane is an odd book with a surprising ending, concocted by a facetious writer. It’s my first Korean book and I’m not sure it’s representative of Korean literature. It’s a cousin of Norwegian Wood by Murakami and His Kingdom by Han Han. Murakami lovers will probably enjoy Park Min-gyu.

Park’s style is full of poetry, of odd comparisons and images. Yohan’s discussions with the narrator are embroidered with vivid, unusual and still spot on metaphors. It’s offbeat, humorous and philosophical. The heroes’ favorite joint has two misspellings in its neon signs. The mistakes are like Freudian slips, it gives the place some character, a bit of poetry and philosophical air. It’s written BEAR instead of BEER, Yohan and the narrator bears their lives. Hope is on the front, a mix between Korean alphabet and English. The mistakes become a symbol of the narrator’s and Yohan’s lives as outcasts. They come here together to bear and to hope.

I went through Park’s mirror and immersed myself in his story, drawn by his voice and I cared for his characters. I can picture it as a graphic novel too, with grey and light blue tones. I also liked the author’s note. After reading a book, I often wonder if I’d like to meet (or would have liked to meet) its author. In this case, it’s definitely yes. He seems to be a discordant voice in Korean literature and I’m interested in discordant voices.

Warmly recommended.

Of course, Tony has already reviewed it. Read his thoughts here.

For the fun of it, here’s the playlist:

  • Auld Lang Syne
  • Baby One More Time by Britney Spears
  • Pavane for a Dead Princess by Maurice Ravel
  • The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack
  • My Old Kentucky Home (I picked the Johnny Cash version)
  • Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds by The Beatles
  • Something by The Beatles
  • Black Bird by The Beatles
  • Michelle by The Beatles
  • Petit Poucet (Ma mère l’Oye) by Maurice Ravel
  • Strawberry Fields Forever by The Beatles
  • Gymnopedie by Erik Satie
  • Blowin’ In The Wind by Bob Dylan
  • Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right by Bob Dylan
  • A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan
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