BOOK REVIEW: ‘Snow Hunters’ ventures into realm of solitude

LOS ANGELES TIMESSeptember 1, 2013 


    by Paul Yoon; Simon & Schuster ($22)

Paul Yoon’s “Snow Hunters” is a novel in which little happens — not, in many ways, unlike life. This is not meant as criticism: Some of the fiction that is most moving is that with the least overt action, in which the interior rather than the exterior is at stake.

That’s the case here, too, as Yoon explores the experiences of a man named Yohan, a North Korean who defects in the 1950s, after the Korean War. Moving back and forth between Yohan’s adjustment to living in a Brazilian coastal town and his memories of childhood as well as of a period spent as a prisoner in an American hospital camp, it is a lovely novel, subtly rendered, operating “as though someone, somewhere, were dreaming this and he had crossed into it without permission. Everything both familiar and foreign.”

Yoon wrote one previous book, “Once the Shore,” a collection of short fiction that takes place on an island off Korea. The eight stories offer a series of meditations on time, loss and identity, as well as the interplay between the individual and the culture of which he or she is a part.

In some sense, “Snow Hunters” feels like a follow-up, as if Yoon had expanded on one of his earlier pieces. “A single place,” he observes. “One house. One piece of land. All the changes. All the lives it once held, however briefly.” At the same time, he is doing something different in this new book, taking a vertical plunge into the heart of a character who cannot quite articulate the depth of all he is feeling, who exists in a territory of solitude, of silence, even as he tries to make connections.

Because he cannot communicate, Yohan remembers: He sorts the past as if his memories were bits and pieces of the fabric that he stitches in the tailor’s shop. He recalls his friend Peng, blinded by a bomb blast in the last days of the war, and the way he had to let him go. He thinks about his father, a farmer who throws pots and vases in his spare time; even after the older man’s death, Yohan imagines that something of his essence lingers in these creations, “that somewhere underneath the glaze and the paint there remained his father’s hands.”

This becomes a vivid metaphor, both for Yohan’s elusive journey and for Yoon’s deft evocation, in which the years blur, one into another, with a sort of relentless grace. “In this way,” he suggests, “the days passed. Those days become years. Those years a life. In the evening he climbed the old stairs into his room. Standing by the window, he pressed a cold washcloth against his neck. A fan spun. He listened to music coming from the nightclub. An airplane. The voice of the woman across the street.”

What Yoon is saying is that such moments are the most we can hope for — and that, even more, they are enough.

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