Book Review: Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

When I reached the end of this short, finely constructed novel, I found this quote. It is the evocative opening line of a novel that I actually studied at University:

The train came out of the long tunnel into the Snow Country.

I read this novel, Snow Country (Yukiguni) by Yasunari Kawabata (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968) – in Japanese. It was not hard to read, but hard to translate because the language sings. It is as crisp and clear as the snow – mountains of it – that falls on a certain region in western Japan, where Siberian winds blow across the cold sea.

Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was an incredibly influential writer. While I was studying his work at University, he passed away (an apparent suicide).

There is no doubt in my mind that Snow Hunters is inspired by Kawabata – and not only in the title, but also in the spare, luminous prose. There is a loneliness about the main character, Yohan, which reminds me of Shimamura in Snow Country.

The novel possesses this, too: mono no aware. This Japanese phrase is almost untranslatable. It really means a muted sadness at the impermanence of things, mingled with a sense of one’s own place – one’s connection, if you like – in the Universe. It is a not unpleasant feeling. When he is completely alone, Yohan is gradually imbued with this awareness – increasingly so, throughout the book. He takes an almost magical early morning bicycle ride out of town, along the coastal road, back and forth, feeling “a lightness in his chest” and thinking “of others and of times before this one.”

Let me backtrack, a little. Yohan is a war survivor; in fact, a North Korean defector, who is eventually put on a ship for the long, arduous journey to Brazil. The port town where he arrives, thin and exhausted, is very far from the bitter deprivation of the South Korean prison camp and the tragedy of his friend, Peng. He lives and works in the Brazilian town with a Japanese tailor, Kiyoshi. Along with Yohan, we begin to feel a fondness for the community that surrounds and embraces him, including the poorer settlement outside of town. We have a feeling for the landscape: the church at the top of the hill; a tree in the meadow; the ships in the port; a single road leading through the mountains to cities beyond; the road along the seashore; the lighthouse.

Yohan is not entirely alone. He has customers at the shop. He befriends Peixe, the church groundsman, and a homeless brother and sister, Santi and Bia, who come and go throughout the story. His relationship with Kiyoshi – also a refugee without family, whose sad past is only hinted at – is particularly delicately drawn. In different ways, these characters help Yohan reconcile with his painful memories and live for the present day.

As I mentioned, the style of the book is quite striking. There are broken sentences and brief phrases, almost like poetry:

A field of stars opened above him. The breath of sky. A path of lights on the ocean’s surface; and the hill town to his left, all its windows like a blurred image as though another ocean was there, another body of water, draped across the high slope.

Actually, that third sentence is one of the longer ones, but perhaps especially effective as it counterbalances the two short ones that precede it.

There are also objects that are symbolic. The sewing machine (he first finds some in an abandoned factory in Korea) represents a focus for the present, and perhaps hope for the future. The umbrella, to me, is compassion. The bicycle is restlessness and freedom. And a child’s little coat, love.

Here is one of the phrases that struck me for its almost Zen-like quality:

In that moment it seemed as though there was nothing more to know.

And in that moment, he sees… Ah, but you will have to read this book to find out.

Creative writing lecturer Paul Yoon has just published a new book of short stories, “The Mountain”..Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Paul Yoon was born in New York City, the son of South Korean immigrants. His first book, Once the Shore, was selected as a New York Times Notable Book and a Best Début of the Year by National Public Radio. Published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster, Snow Hunters won the 2014 Young Lions Fiction Award. His new collection of short stories – set in various countries – The Mountain, is out now. Paul Yoon was the recipient of the 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation and a fellowship from the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. He is currently a Briggs-Copland Lecturer in Fiction at Harvard University, along with his wife, Laura Van den Berg (they have a dog named Oscar).

Here is his website.

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