Occasionally, there comes a novel that shakes you out of your reality, places you in its reality, and makes you want to live there forever, no matter how trying the circumstances, how matter how brutal the lay of the land, and no matter how beastly some characters who inhabit that world. Whale was one such novel for me this year, and maybe for a long time to come.
Whale is a book that breaks all compartmentalisation of the novel. It is literary and then it isn’t. It is fantastical, and then you see reality overflowing from its pages. It dons the hat of magic realism, only to for the magic to be stripped off early on, to make an appearance again and again, leaving you confused and begging for more. It is full of emotion, and stoicism at the same time. It is funny, mostly emotional, heart-rendering, brave, strong, weak, reflects the societies we inhabit, speaks of women and how they are treated, is also cognisant of people on the gender spectrum, makes note of objects having a life of their own, shows how movies can change people, and how success and failure are only ever transient and not constant.
Whale is a book that made me feel so much. I didn’t want it to end – as stereotypical as this statement gets about things we love; it couldn’t be truer for me when it came to this read. I am so glad that this was translated so beautifully from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim – she takes the novel and makes it her own. She tells the story of Geumbok, of her daughter, of her lovers, of the twins, of the elephant, and of everyone in the novel. It stops being a novel by Cheon Myeong-kwan and takes the form of being the translator’s novel, at least for me. That is the beauty of translation, of how it can resonate with the reader because of the expression and words, and emotions chosen by the translator. Of how they make a work theirs and see it for what it truly is.
The plot of this book cannot be explained by me, and I shall not try doing that. What I will say is that you would be missing out on something extremely special by choosing not to read this one, and it will be a huge loss. So, choose wisely. That’s all.