Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 13, 2011

Please look after Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated by Chi-Young Kim

Please Look After MomHmm, perhaps I should have guessed that an ‘international best-seller’ with a million sales in Korea alone would be a disappointment…

I was about a quarter of the way through Please Look After Mom (translated as Please Look After Mother in the UK) and was bored witless by it so I decided to re-check its nomination for the Man Asian Literary Prize to see why I should have been enjoying it.   It seemed to me that this was a rather pedestrian story in rather plodding prose about an ageing mother who goes missing on a crowded subway and her guilt-stricken adult children’s search for her.  Was I missing something??  Was it going to improve??

This is what the Man Asian website says:

A million-plus-copy best seller in Korea, Please Look After Mom is the stunning, deeply moving story of a family’s search for their mother, who goes missing one afternoon amid the crowds of the Seoul Station subway.

Restrained, eh?  They couldn’t come up with anything more encouraging than that?

Well, I guess the jury couldn’t ignore the wealth of prizes this author has collected:  the Manhae Literature Prize, the Dong-in Literature Prize, and the Yi Sang Literary Prize, as well as France’s Prix de l’Inaperçu.  And it’s nice to have an author from Korea, I suppose.

But for me, in this novel ‘deeply moving’  means tediously sentimental, and the theme of the gulf that arises when the younger generation achieves social mobility has been done to death – ever since Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations.  In Please Look After Mom it’s an idealised peasant mother who sacrifices everything so that her children can get an education and improve their lot.  When they move away to the bright lights of the city leaving her to drudgery on the farm, amid the pressures of modern life they don’t have time for her.  And they feel guilty because they’ve neglected her and now they may never see her again.  There’s a mean and careless husband too, and when he learns her secrets he feels guilty too.   These characters are all drowning in guilt!

If it were well-written or characterised, maybe this novel would have greater appeal, but the male characters seem flat, and the narration/translation is downright clunky.  The first chapter, narrated by the rebellious daughter, is particularly trying to read.  Like most of the rest of the book, it’s written in an awkward first/second person voice that really grated after a while:

A year before, when you’d gone home in the summer, there was a Chindo tied next to the shed.  It was sweltering, and the chain was so short that it seemed the panting dog, unable to get out of the sun, would fall over dead at any moment.  You told Mom to untie the dog.  Mom said that if she did people  would be too scared to walk by.  How could she chain up a dog like that, especially in the countryside…
Because of the dog, you argued with Mom as soon as you arrived, not even bothering to say hello.  ‘Why do you keep the dog tied up? Let it roam.’

‘You’ used here doesn’t mean someone else being addressed, it means the narrator (the daughter).  I think it’s intended to be a kind of internal dialogue between the narrator’s self and her inner guilt-fairy – the idea being to show how she’s accusing herself of being judgemental.  Whatever it it’s meant to be, it’s exasperating to read, especially when other characters get involved and there’s more than one ‘you’  getting their share of the guilt in the same paragraph.  (There’s always enough to go around).

Stu at Winston’s Dad thought better of it than I did, and so does Matt at A Novel Approach.  Bella Frey at London/Korean Links liked it too, and Pico Iyer’s review at the Wall St Journal tackles cynics like me head-on.  But there’s also a deliciously tongue-in-cheek review at the NY Times that suggests that I am not alone in finding this book tiresome!

Update: Feb 6th 2012
Two more reviewers who think as I do, and one who doesn’t!
Maureen Corrigan at NPR Books called it a ‘melodrama about maternal self-sacrifice’ and Tony from Tony’s Reading List thinks that it’s ‘a piece of trashy kitsch, a giant guilt-trip of a book which has probably sold its million copies simply by virtue of making middle-class Koreans uncomfortable about not having called Mum much recently’ but Fay from the Shadow Man Asian LitPrize team went in to bat for it big time!
Update: It got longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize too…

Author: Kyung-Sook Shin
Translated from the Korean into English by Chi-Young Kim
Title: Please Look After Mom
Publisher: Alfred Knopf 2011
ISBN: 9780307593917
Source: Personal library

Availability:
Fishpond: Please Look After Mom


Responses

  1. Oh, no! I’m so sad you didn’t love this as much as I did.

    I never felt the sentiment was over-egged – in many ways, that’s what I felt Shin was doing to make her point. In a society where women are still treated like second citizens, perhaps people needed their heartstrings tugged a little? I certainly rang my mum after finishing it…

    And out of curiosity, did you read the American version? The UK edition uses “mother,” instead of “mom,” and I think it’s a better translation.

    • *chuckle* we may have some spirited discussion when it comes to making decisions, eh?
      Yes, it was the US version and I found the ‘Mom’ annoying. I don’t mind how the word sounds when I hear it pronounced the American way, but written down, that spelling looks a bit awkward to my English-Aussie eyes. But more than that, in the context of the book’s theme and maybe its culture as well, I think Mother is better too. Mom/Mum implies a close and loving relationship, (which they didn’t have) while Mother is more distant but also more respectful.

  2. So that’s a no no then. The use of the “you” in the paragraph you quote is definitely irritating. I agree with “mom” being irritating – the one I hate is “nan” for grandmother which seems to indicate an adult stuck in baby-talk.

    I think I’ll pass on this one!

    • Oh yes, my mother was adamant that she would be Grandma, thank you, not Nan.

  3. Love this review Lisa.
    One of Patrick Holland’s essays/short stories in ‘Riding the Trains in Japan’ uses the “you” inner dialogue quite effectively but there is no chance of confusion over the narrator and the author has used the device sparingly so I liked it.
    What I think I would find more tedious is the use of short pedestrian sentences like those in the quote above (again, something I’ve complained about in some of the recent shorts I’ve read).
    Guilt can, indeed, be a tedious emotion and I love your wry comment that “there’s always enough to go around” in ‘Please look after Mom’ (it does sound like Mother would have fit the bill better than Mom).
    I think I might just manage to not feel guilty about leaving this one alone.

    • *chuckle* Yeah, let’s leave enough guilt for everyone else to wallow in!

  4. As the book was so highly hyped I was determined to dislike it. But I failed. It’s not the best thing to have come out of Korea, but I still liked it.

    • Hello Philip, welcome to chatting about books at ANZ LitLovers. I had a quick look around your site and will be back to find out about literature from Korea that *is* the best! Cheers
      Lisa

  5. […] The Folded Earth – Anuradha ROY (Me) Please Look After Mother – Kyung-Sook SHIN (Me; Lisa; Stu) The Valley of Masks – Tarun J TEPJAL (Fay; Lisa) Dream of Ding Village – YAN […]

  6. […] Shin’s Please look after mother (or Mom, depending on your version) (Korea) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. Lisa didn’t like it as […]

  7. I found Please Look After Mom to be merely okay – I managed to forge some kind of emotional bond with the book, but it was rather tenuous and the writing style was enough to make me want to tear the book apart. The book was completely ruined for me, though, when I saw its Hebrew translation. Because there are no direct Korean->Hebrew translators in the world, the book was translated from English for some unknown reason (why translate it at all?!) and was done atrociously. The writing flaws that were annoying in English became unbearable in Hebrew and highlighted the further flaws in the novel. This managed – through some weird bypass in the space-time continuum – to spoil my impression of the “original” English version so I’ve now become a lot more cynical regarding the novel than I might have been before…

    • Oh dear, that sounds like a really bad case of the translation blues!
      I am beginning to have a better understanding of the perils of translation after reading Ouyang Yu’s book Loose: in it he explains the ambiguities of Chinese and English and how hard it is to choose the right word to correspond with the meaning. Going through that process with two languages, well, as you say, why bother if what you end up with sells both writer and reader short.

      • There are, of course, many good reasons to double translate. Ismail Kadare’s work, for example, is usually translated out of the French instead of its original Albanian, because there simply aren’t enough Albania-English translators out there to do the work.

        David Bellos, the translator of Kadare from French to English, explains some other reasons here: http://www.complete-review.com/quarterly/vol6/issue2/bellos.htm

        • True, this is often the case with Hebrew double-translations. However, there are times (and specific cases) when the double translations are so poorly done that I simply cannot recommend them. Yes, this means readers may not have access to a very good book, but sometimes it’s just not worth it…

        • Of course, yes, I’d forgotten about Kadare…imagine not being to read him unless we learned Albanian! It’s a fraught issue, isn’t it?

          • There would be an easier way… Learn French. :)
            I find that there are far more French and/or German direct translations of books to be found than English ones.
            I’m reading Bellos at present as well and was suprised about the double translation.
            I have only read the first part of Please Look After Mother and thought that the “You” was one of the other siblings talking to this daughter…

            • Hello Caroline, welcome to ANZ LitLovers (I’ve dropped in on your blog occasionally as well *smile*)
              I’ve learned French on and off for quite a few years, but I don’t think I’d be up to reading anything complex in it. I speak conversational French, Italian, and Spanish but Indonesian is the only LOTE I can read a novel in. (Would you believe Agatha Christie? It’s true!)
              And now I need to learn Russian, for my trip next year – that’s going to be a tricky one, not even the alphabet is the same!

              I found that constant ‘You’ demanded more concentration than I really wanted to invest…

  8. You are welcome any time.
    I was browsing your Australian literature recommendations when I saw this post and the comments. I’m tempted to sign up for an Australian literature challenge later next year and wanted to see if what I have on my piles (no new books for me next year!) is any good. It seems as if I’ve got Tim Winton, Charlotte Wood, Helen Garner, Murray Bail and Malouf. It should be a start. I’ve only read very few Australian authors.

    • Well, you’ve got some great authors there, my advice would be to read ’em all!

  9. […] Zealand, where Swedish-born Olsson now lives.  The rights have been sold around the world.  So once again, Lisa at ANZ LitLovers is out of step with popular and critical […]


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