“I could understand humanity through books. How weak we are and also how strong we are. How endlessly good, and yet endlessly violent. People for whom things did not turn out the way they wanted, who fought unhappiness all their lives—they leave a trace of themselves. Traces of having endured unspeakable situations. I wonder if my act of reading was a search for such traces.”
These are the words of a minor character, Park Muleung, near the end of I Went to See My Father. They are spoken during an interview conducted by the narrator, Hon, who is in search of stories about her father’s past. The paragraph could just as easily serve as a thesis for this entrancing, subtly insightful novel by Kyung-Sook Shin, which is both a family saga and an ode to the ability of storytelling to make sense of the disorder of life. I Went to See My Father dramatizes and explores the question that confronts many adult children: is it ever possible to really know one’s parents? In the words of the narrator, Hon, “If it’s the nature of memory to go wrong, is it all right for me to keep believing in the things I thought were true?”
I Went to See My Father is one of the most fair and balanced treatments I’ve seen of the estrangement that can accompany growing up. This novel, in excellent translation by Anton Hur, is a well-crafted work of realist fiction that explores the power of communication to bring families to a point of greater understanding. The premise of I Went to See My Father involves the narrator, Hon, visiting her aging father in her childhood home for the first time since she lost her daughter in a tragic accident two years earlier. Shocked to observe behavioral changes in her father, including persistent insomnia, asking after long-deceased family members, and frequent crying jags, she comes to realize she has no idea who he really is. Hon wonders if her idea of her father as the strong, silent, unemotional patriarch was little more than an elaborate fiction built on unquestioned assumptions. The visit, initially a task performed out of obligation and guilt, becomes an opportunity for her to atone for the lack of concern she’s shown during her own grief. Through found letters, recovered memories, and conversations, Hon realizes just how limited her knowledge is—not just of her father, but of her entire family.
The novel unfolds in a slow, winding fashion rather than a typical linear structure. One thought leads to the next, and by the end of the book, seemingly inconsequential moments are revealed as integral parts of a bigger narrative picture. The finely tuned storytelling effectively renders Hon as a fully realized character with a complex inner life, but at times, the meandering structure made it difficult for I Went to See My Father to hold my attention. I enjoyed it more when I read in short bursts, as if I were sporadically recalling my own memories. If readers are looking for a novel bustling with plot, they’d be better served elsewhere; the art here is in the reflection of the subtle nuances of everyday life. Kyung-Sook Shin allows her characters to revel in mundanities that seem trivial and to ponder their larger implications until the novel’s subtle conclusion.
The episodic book is divided into five chapters, each focusing on a particular period of time in Hon’s journey of getting to know her father. Long passages of description are followed by bursts of dialogue, recovered snippets of memory, and the letters written between Hon’s father and her oldest brother. This fragmentary structure fits the slow, gradual exposition of the story, making plot twists feel fully realized and well earned.
I Went to See My Father is invested in the process of storytelling and the role memory plays in that pursuit. Hon, a writer of fiction by profession, has a complicated relationship between her work and her personal life. While writing fulfills Hon, she acknowledges that it also separates her from the rest of the world. She gradually realizes that the singularity of purpose that has led to her success as a writer has also alienated her from those who want to be close to her. Further emphasizing her estranged relationship to her family, it’s revealed late in the book that her father has avoided reading her books because it “made him feel you were getting further away from him. That you sounded like you were lying.” Hon loves to edit and revise, but eventually realizes that “no matter how I refined the fragments, I could never begin again.” This is where the conflict between Hon’s inner and outer life takes shape. There’s no going back to edit the past. She can’t change the events that led her back home. The only option is to use her gift with words and her ability to record stories as the vehicle to repair her relationships. As Park Muleung encourages her: “Tell him your stories and listen to him tell his. What else is there to do for each other.”
The way Kyung-Sook Shin draws characters, revealing them layer by nuanced layer, is a marvel. How fortunate we are to have this translation by Anton Hur, providing English-speaking audiences access to the talents of one of South Korea’s most lauded contemporary authors. Family may be the one puzzle that will never have a neat solution, but it’s a comfort to know that this struggle is more common than I’d previously thought. Like Park Muleung, I read to understand humanity, and books like I Went to See My Father make that a much more pleasurable endeavor.
© 2023 by David Vogel. All rights reserved.