Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho was a highly anticipated read for me. Its young author was raised in Paris, Seoul, and Switzerland, and chose to set her first novella – just 154 pages of rather large writing – in South Korea. It was subsequently awarded with the Prix Robert Walser, which celebrates first novels, and the Prix Régine-Deforges. Originally written in French, Winter in Sokcho has been quite brilliantly translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins, a prize-winning translator.
Sokcho is a popular summer destination, located on the coast of South Korea. North Korea is just sixty kilometres away, and the beach in Sokcho is ‘scarred’ with electric barbed wire fencing. Despite its draw in warmer weather, in the winter, Sokcho is a very different place, bleak, and largely devoid of tourists.
Here, one January, a young French-Korean woman, a recent graduate, is working as a receptionist in a guesthouse. One evening, ‘an unexpected guest arrives: a French graphic novelist determined to find inspiration in this desolate landscape.’ The pair form what becomes an ‘uneasy’ relationship, and the receptionist eventually accepts an invitation to discover the “authentic” Korea with him. The relationship between the two is strained, and sometimes awkward, but they share intimate fragments of themselves.
The story is narrated throughout by our unnamed receptionist. She has a sense of being somewhat lost; although she studied for her degree in a large city, she has returned to Sokcho, where she grew up and where her mother lives, as she does not quite know in which direction she wants her life to go. In Sokcho, where there are few opportunities, she is regarded as an oddity, as something almost of an outsider, due to her parentage: ‘My French origins were still a source of gossip even though it was twenty-three years since my father had seduced my mother and then vanished without a trace.’
She meets the mysterious visitor, Yan Kerrand, very early on, recalling that when he entered the guesthouse, ‘He put his suitcase down at my feet and pulled off his hat. Western face. Dark eyes. Hair combed to one side. He looked straight through me, without seeing me.’ Later, when Dusapin describes the process of his drawing, she captures movement with such skill: ‘He finished the background in pencil and took up his pen to give her eyes. The woman sat up. Straight-backed. Hair swept back. The chin awaiting a mouth. Kerrand’s breath came faster and faster, in time with the strokes of his pen, until a set of white teeth exploded into laughter on the page.’
There is a lot of attention to detail here, and a focus on the most intimate of bodily processes; when our narrator stays overnight with her mother, for instance, and finds that she cannot sleep due to her mother’s snoring, she says: ‘I counted the drops of saliva leaking out one by one from her parted lips and onto my skin.’ Dusapin also focuses a spotlight on the troubling trend of plastic surgery in South Korea, through the lens of the narrator’s boyfriend, Jun-oh. Just before he travels to a modelling agency in Seoul for an interview, the following happens: ‘He stood up, checked himself out in the mirror, said he didn’t think they’d expect him to have surgery, but if they did, he was prepared to have his nose, chin and eyes done… Clinics were offering deals, by the way, I should look into it, he’d bring me some brochures for facial surgery… Everyone had things they could improve, he said.’
Winter in Sokcho is described as ‘a novel about shared identities and divided selves, vision and blindness, intimacy and alienation’. I found it to be all of these things, and more. There is a melancholy, a tension which suffuses every page. I particularly admired the way in which Dusapin does not glorify or romanticise the town in any way; she shows it in all of its wretchedness and poverty. The image portrayed of this area of South Korea is stark; it is gritty rather than pretty, and filled to the brim with ‘cardboard boxes, plastic waste, blue metal sheets. No urban sprawl.’ Our narrator, when asked what living in Sokcho is like, thinks the following: ‘He’d never understand what Sokcho was like. You had to be born here, live through the winters. The smells, the octopus. The isolation.’
Dusapin’s descriptions are almost palpable, and she considers the senses throughout; the sights, the smells, and the sounds in equal measure. I found some of her imagery rather haunting; for instance, ‘On the beach, snow was melting on the sand in a sheet of sunlight. I thought I saw the outline of a man hunched over in a wool coat, like a willow in the wind. / There was no one there.’ There is an almost otherworldly feel to Winter in Sokcho at times, despite it being grounded in the realism of a rundown town in winter.
Winter in Sokcho is an excellent, and sometimes sharp novella, which I found highly revealing. I admired so much about it, from the author’s turns of phrase, to the way in which Abbas Higgins retained so many of the cultural markers in her translation. This is a very strong and memorable work of fiction, and I cannot wait until more of Dusapin’s work is available in English.