Where Adults are Nearly Invisible: “The Impossible Fairytale” by Han Yujoo

The Impossible Fairytale (2013) by Han Yujoo translated by Janet Hong (2017, Tilted Axis Press)

Sheffield-based Titled Axis Press (@TiltedAxisPress) is one of my favourite new publishers. I posted on one of their books some time ago in May – The Sad Part Was (2017) by Thai writer Prabda Yoon (translated by Mui Poopoksakul). I just went through another exciting volume they have recently released – this one is The Impossible Fairytale by Korean author Han Yujoo, translated by Janet Hong from Vancouver. It is my second Korean novel after Han Kang’s Man Booker International Prize-winning The Vegetarian (2015).

Born in 1982 in Seoul, Han Yujoo studied German literature at Hongik University and obtained a Master’s degree in aesthetics from Seoul National University. She debuted in 2003 and has written four short story collections. Her first novel The Impossible Fairytale was published in 2013. A notable translator, she has rendered the works of writers like Michael Ondaatje and Geoff Dyer into Korean. She currently teaches at the Seoul Institute of the Arts and Korea University’s Department of Creative Writing. She is an active member of an experimental group called Rue and also runs an independent press called Oulipopress.

The Impossible Fairytale (2013) by Han Yujoo translated by Janet Hong (2017, Graywolf Press)

Bold and highly original, The Impossible Fairytale is set in the late 90s in and around a school. Here we meet two entirely different twelve-year-olds – Mia and her classmate, who is known simply as the “Child”. Mia is easily well-off, she has two fathers (one of whom has gifted her German colour pencils). She knows that it is possible to kill someone with a fountain pen. The Child, on the other hand, is mysterious. Her eyes are like those of a fish, they neither reveal or conceal emotion. One day, the Child just takes away the notebooks of her classmates and adds to them her own weird sentences, in their handwriting.

The world of the novel is oppressive. Adults, be they parents or teachers, are aloof and insignificant. The children are all over the place. They present themselves to the reader through powerful soliloquies that unfold in streams of consciousness. Words move swiftly on the page, meanings can shift within a single sentence. The characters, we learn, are dangerously suspended between immaturity and monstrosity. They are used to playing a “fainting game” where they choke each other. Soon Mia and the Child collide, and the consequences are violent. (I wondered – was this story trying to symbolically convey a situation in which adulthood has turned irresponsible/infantile or innocence become toxic? Both are possible.)

The Impossible Fairytale is disturbing but it remains dreamy right till the end – with sharp and beautiful imagery involving snow, little objects like keys, a dog in a river. Definitely not a novel for everyone – but do check it out if you’re fond of literary experiments (especially, “metafiction”). What I liked about Han Yujoo’s prose was its ability to go deep into mental processes and describe them with accuracy and honesty. Even though the language may look dry, direct and matter-of-fact, below the surface, in the nuances, empathy shines.

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A little scene:

The Child glances at Mia’s face. With her mouth tightly shut, Mia is sweeping. Hair ties, erasers, and notes that were secretly passed in class get swept up by Mia’s broom. The teacher isn’t there. The Child thinks this is her chance to approach Mia. She must interrogate Mia. I hate you. I hate you. It hurts. I despise you. A fire is hot. A long and hard thing. A needle is pointy. It hurts. It hurts so much I can hardly bear it. I want to kill, too. I want to kill. Bad things are painful. Painful things are bad. I want to kill, too. I despise you. It hurts. I hate you. Dust rises from the end of the broom.

 

“A needle is pointy. It hurts. It hurts so much I can hardly bear it. I want to kill, too. I want to kill. Bad things are painful. Painful things are bad.” (Photo: Pixabay)

 

Stifling her anxiety, the Child observes Mia. Are you friends? Mia’s mother had asked. She’s in my class, Mia had said. The Child isn’t Mia’s friend. Mia would never pour out her heart to the Child. What she had seen. What she hadn’t seen. Right now, Mia’s head is filled with thoughts of her two fathers and mother. Mia’s pinky fingernail catches the Child’s eye. No one, not even the Child, can see the Child’s pinky fingernail. It had disappeared from the Child’s finger. It had happened last Thursday. The Child, quietly sweeping while watching Mia, looks back. No one is there. Do you live around here? What’s your name? Mia’s mother had asked. She hadn’t answered. All she can think now is that she has been discovered by Mia and her mother. In her head, something keeps collapsing. Keeps collapsing. Something. Even though it seems impossible for something to keep collapsing.

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