In Sokcho appearances are as slippery as the squid the fishermen unload at the harbour. The town’s location, on the far north-east coast of South Korea, close to the border with North Korea, already makes it a middling sort of place. During the summer tourists fill the beaches, but in the winter the seaside town becomes “entombed in frost” and visitors are few and far between.
The Prix Robert Walser-winning novel by French-Korean author Élisa Shua Dusapin, published in French in 2016 and now translated into lean English by Aneesa Abbas Higgins, centres around an unnamed young woman who, too, is hovering in the in-between. A graduate in Korean and French literature, she has returned from university to Sokcho, her hometown, to figure out her next move, working for the meantime in a tired guesthouse. Her boyfriend does have a name – Jun-oh – but is no constant; to-ing and fro-ing as he does between Sokcho and Seoul to interview at modelling agencies, considering plastic surgery, and suggesting it to his girlfriend too. “Everyone had things they could improve, he said.”
The woman’s focus on their relationship, much like her perception of her own form, is wavering. After just two days apart, Jun-oh’s “image was becoming a blur”; when she looks at a photograph of herself, she is surprised to see how much her bones stick out. Even when preparing food she looks for her distorted image: “My spoon created ripples, smudging my nose, making my forehead undulate and my cheeks bleed into my chin.”
The gaze of her mother, the only fishmonger in Sokcho with a licence to prepare deadly pufferfish, doesn’t help. The pair share a physical intimacy – “I counted the drops of saliva leaking out one by one from her parted lips and onto my skin,” she says as she lies next to her mother in bed – and a troubling obsession with appearance. “You look so lovely when you eat, my girl,” says her mother, but after dress shopping, she warns: “You’ll need to watch your figure so you can still fit into it.” Fewer than 20 pages later, it’s “You’ve lost weight again, you need to eat more.” As these conflicting observations pile up, you begin to wonder whether her daughter’s body really is morphing daily and noticeably; whether it, like everything else in Sokcho, exists in a state of extreme ambivalence.
Though slippery in its thematic effect, the language in this masterful short novel is to the point, written in sharp first-person and full of indirect speech. Many of the short sentences don’t bother with verbs at all: “In their bin, two condoms, packaging from a night-time face cream, mandarin peelings,” or, “My arms around him, unreal.” The protagonist is a keen observer of people, cutting in the way those who hover at the sidelines often are in judging others.
She becomes increasingly entranced by the presence of Yan Kerrand, a French graphic novelist staying in Sokcho to find inspiration for his latest work. To him, she wavers between tour guide and unlikely romantic interest. She takes him to the Lotte Mart to buy ink and paper (he conspicuously chews the latter to test it before buying) and to the ominous, militarised border, dwelling on the occasions their hands have brushed and masturbating in the room next to his. She begins spying on him through half-opened doors as he works in his guesthouse room, drawing a female form that is “twisting”, “warping”, “distorting” on his sketchpad.
Most intriguing is the (also unnamed) young woman staying at the guesthouse to seek “refuge from the capital” after plastic surgery, her face temporarily hidden behind bandages that make her look “like a panda”. One day the protagonist watches her peel off a bandage, “the wounds weeping”. She “dug a nail into her cheek and scratched. Rooted around. Dug. Raked.” The visceral texture of this scene is deeply uncomfortable to read. The woman has escaped Seoul to avoid wandering eyes, but still, she is watched.
Outside, “Oozing winter and fish, Sokcho waited.”
Winter in Sokcho
Élisa Shua Dusapin, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
Daunt Books, 128pp, £9.99
This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion