Snow Hunters: A Novel
- Paul Yoon
- Simon & Schuster
- 208 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- August 14, 2013
A deceptively simple story of a North Korean prisoner of war’s search for a new life in his adopted country of Brazil.
A certain literary style is in vogue these days. Prose so exquisitely polished and luminous, it takes your breath away. Luxuriant language that brings everything into sharp relief and leaves little to the reader’s imagination. Plots crammed with so much detail that they resemble a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Stories frantic with action and drenched in emotion, keeping the heart racing and the pages turning. You know what I’m talking about — I don’t need to name names. Just check any literary critic’s top books of recent years or the winners of prestigious literary prizes.
So it is with some surprise, and relief, to come upon the slim, slow-moving novel Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon. Written in short sentences and plain prose reminiscent of a children’s book, the novel tells the story of Yohan, a North Korean POW who chooses at the end of the war to emigrate to Brazil rather than be repatriated.
Though the prose is gentle and simple, the story is not.
Conscripted into the North Korean army, Yohan endures the terrible things that a soldier must endure during wartime. Then, “a whistling filled the air and the land exploded, burying them.” His childhood friend Peng is seriously injured and permanently blinded. An American soldier sees Yohan’s nose sticking out of the snow “‘[l]ike a fucking carrot’” and cracks a rifle down on it, “assuming if he were alive, he’d react.” They are taken prisoner and, for the next two years, live in a camp run by the Americans, burying dead bodies, tending to the wounded, washing clothes, and farming. One day, while chopping trees in the forest, after Yohan mentions seeing a girl drown during childhood, Peng floats away in a river.
After the end of the war, Yohan takes it upon himself to mend clothes for those who remain in the camp. The only prisoner to decline to return to North Korea, he accepts an offer by the U.N. to send him to Brazil, to become the apprentice to a tailor. The novel begins with his arrival in an unnamed “hill town that resembled the old shell of some creature” on Brazil’s coast, a town whose most salient landmarks, according to Yohan, are the port, an abandoned plantation, a lighthouse and a tree that perches atop the highest point behind the town.
In contrast to the straightforward prose, the novel is intricately constructed. While Yohan builds a new life as apprentice to the tailor Kiyoshi, tightly stitched flashbacks tell of his years as a soldier and a POW. Yohan meets two orphaned street children, Bai and Santi, and the groundskeeper of a church, Peixe, who had polio as a child and now uses a cane, “a slow grace to his movements.” As we watch the evolution of Yohan’s relationships with Kiyoshi and the others, we slowly learn about his life before the war, his family and his childhood. It’s a suspense that works, and makes the last part of the story very powerful.
The book is full of repeating images and patterns that weave through a life. Scarves flutter in the wind in a rural village in Korea, a frozen POW camp, and a shantytown on the coast of Brazil. Blinded Peng came from a wandering family of acrobats and street entertainers; in Brazil Yohan enjoys watching a blind juggler who wraps a scarf around his eyes so that his audience will understand that he cannot see. Kiyoshi is a defector as well, from the Japanese army and an earlier war. He also used to juggle, according to Peixe, who knew him when Kiyoshi first arrived at the internment camp that is now the shantytown where Santi and Bai live.
A gentle soul, Kiyoshi is damaged, admitting shortly before he dies, “I’ve spent my life looking down and away ... I have not looked up enough.” Yohan, too, is damaged, and it is his challenge to overcome that same propensity to look down, and learn to look up.
Certainly, those gorgeously written, best-of-list novels are a joy to read and deserve their prizes. But one worries that the literary novel is being typecast, and those books get a lot of play at the expense of other kinds of writing. There is more than one way to lay down a novel. So, if you are looking for a break from the same old, same old, yearning maybe for a stretch of calm sea that still takes you on an eye-opening voyage, then let Paul Yoon show you the way.
Alice Stephens is a frequent contributor to The Independent.