In the Seoul of Kyung-sook Shin’s new novel, “I’ll Be Right There,” university students wander the hilly city on foot. They take in its vistas, its hidden histories, writing in journals and reading literature. And every now and then, they’re struck by a faint, acrid scent that always seems to drift over them – the scent of tear gas.
The constant battles between riot police and leftist student protesters do not interest Jung Yoon, a poetically inclined undergraduate. She prefers German poets like Rainer Maria Rilke to radical rhetoric. But Korea’s political divisions are never far from the thoughts of the people around her.
On the first day of classes, Jung Yoon’s favorite literature teacher, Professor Yoon (no relation), says he’s grown weary of the political fighting around him, which has sent tear gas drifting over the campus yet again. “That day, Professor Yoon had just one thing to say to us: What is the use of art in this day and age?”
It’s the early 1990s and Professor Yoon bemoans living in an age “when words have lost their value,” a time “dominated by violent words, by words swollen and yellowed with starvation.”
“I’ll Be Right There” is Shin’s 17th book but just the second to be translated into English. The first, “Please Look After Mom,” won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011. As with “Please Look After Mom,” an international bestseller, Shin uses a spare, deeply emotional literary style in “I’ll Be Right There” to take up themes of loss and memory. Her novel gives a sense of what it’s like to have a poet’s soul in a country that always seems to be on a war footing, in a perpetual conflict with enemies both foreign and domestic.
“I’ll Be Right There” opens with a kind of prologue that takes place long after the novel’s main events. Jung Yoon receives a call from an old boyfriend she hasn’t heard from in eight years. Professor Yoon is dying, the boyfriend tells her.
“As his illness progressed, Professor Yoon had insisted on being alone and refused visitors – just as my mother had done,” Jung Yoon says. “In the face of death, he wanted to be strictly and faithfully alone.”
Shin writes about longing and loneliness with the kind of controlled passion one finds in classic Russian literature. Her characters rarely raise their voices. Instead, they tell stories, they walk and eat together. Above all, they remember.
“Though I tend to confuse things that happened yesterday with things that happened ten years ago, and am prone to standing in front of the open refrigerator, trying to remember what I was looking for … I could still remember seeing Professor Yoon for the first time all those years ago,” Jung Yoon says.
Newly arrived at the college campus and mourning her mother, Jung Yoon had sought consolation in literature and in new friendships with those who were also misfits and outsiders on campus. One was her future boyfriend Myungsuh and his friend Miru, whose hands were disfigured with burns.
They met in Professor Yoon’s classroom. The instructor began the first class of a new term with a story. It was a Bible parable with a powerful, universal message, the story of St. Christopher carrying a baby over a stream. They must carry each other through Korea’s turbulent present, the professor told them. And they must trust that art will give them strength to do so.
“Literature and art are not simply what will carry you; they are also what you must lay down your life for, what you must labor over, and shoulder, for the rest of your life,” Professor Yoon says.
There is a kind of art, Jung Yoon discovers, in the hidden alleyways and the teeming markets that surround her Seoul home and her university. But more than that, there is art in her own life, and in that of her new friends. Jung Yoon and her new friends share tales of their childhoods, remembering old friends, gardens, family meals.
In one especially evocative passage, they cook and share a first meal together, mimicking the family meals of their childhoods. It includes a bowl of soup Miru has prepared.
“She had seasoned it well… The pink of the shrimp completed the green of the mallow,” Jung Yoon says. “I picked up a perilla leaf and placed it on Miru’s rice. It was something my mother used to do for me.”
As they continue their meal, Jung Yoon remembers how her mother stopped eating during the final days of her illness. Miru has lost her sister, who had a boyfriend who disappeared under strange circumstances.
There’s a melodramatic underpinning to the story of the main characters in “I’ll Be Right There.” But until the novel’s final chapters – when the stories of loss all come to a violent climax – Shin builds her narrative on the solid foundations of everyday, ordinary Korean life.
Shin writes wonderfully about intimacy and the longing of lonely people. At its best, “I’ll Be Right There” is a hopeful work about the power of art, friendship and empathy to provide meaning to people’s lives.
The friends meet a student and architecture maven who calls himself Nak Sujang, or “Falling Water.” He’s named himself after Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, and he shows his new friends the wonders of Seoul, to prove to them that “even architecture has a soul.”
Following “Falling Water” on the streets of the city, “we often laughed at nothing at all,” Jung Yoon says. “We would laugh for a bit, and then the mood would turn strange, and our laughter would die out… Was it okay to laugh like that?”
It’s hard to give yourself permission to laugh when your life has been touched by so much loss and conflict. Like so many millions of their countrymen, Shin’s young protagonists are living such a dilemma. In Shin’s wonderfully stirring novel, they learn that it’s OK to laugh, and to seek the healing pleasures of art, even in the wake of death.