Tony Malone reviews Jung Young Moon's Vaseline Buddha

Translated from the Korean by Yewon Jung (Deep Vellum, 2016)

Korean literature has so far struggled to make a major impact on the psyche of Anglophone readers, and much of what has been translated is serious, high-brow fare focussing on social issues. Beginning with Yi Kwang-su’s didactic works set in the Japanese colonial period, passing through Korean War fiction such as Hwang Sun-won’s Trees on a Slope, and arriving at the later chronicles of those who paid bitterly for the Miracle on the Han (Korea’s economic boom), perhaps most starkly outlined in Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf, readers could be forgiven for thinking that Korean literature consists of endless tales of woe. Even the current face of K-Lit in the west, Han Kang, fits this mould: Human Acts describes the devastating psychological aftermath of a government’s attack on its own people, while The Vegetarian depicts a woman’s defiant rejection of societal norms.

And then there’s Jung Young Moon:

One day, when the night was giving way to dawn and everything was still immersed in darkness, I sat on a windowsill in the house I lived in, unable to sleep, thinking vaguely that I would write a story. I didn’t know at all where or what the story, if it could be called a story, would head toward, nor did I want to know in advance, and for the time being there was nothing that told me where to go or what to do. So for the time being, I was right to think that it could turn into a story, but it was possible that it wouldn’t turn into a story at all.

From the very first line, it is clear that Jung offers a rather different point of access into Korean literature, one which has very little to do with the country itself, at least on the surface. Much of his previous work has featured characters suffering from world-weariness, attempting to cope with the darkness they find in day-to-day existence. But Jung addresses this darkness with humour, focusing on the absurdity of their troubles. This is the case in Vaseline Buddha, translated by Yewon Jung, and narrated by a version of the writer himself, stuck in his room with his thoughts. In the first few pages, he notices a thief attempting to climb into his room and startles him unintentionally, causing the intruder to fall to the ground. Far from rushing to call the police, the writer laments the departure of his unexpected visitor, and his thoughts on the matter become a catalyst for the story he decides to write.

The use of the word "story," though, is misleading, as Jung is rarely in a hurry to move his text along. As quickly as the writer starts to build an image, it is undermined and deconstructed:

I’m making up new stories by mixing up my memories and thoughts, and linking together things that have nothing to do with each other. There actually were old women who came to the park and sat on benches for a long time, but there wasn’t one who spent all day there (What I’m saying is that I’ll be telling a story in which gazes fixed on certain things, and memories and thoughts, are jumbled together).

The stories change as they are told, and the writer’s fickleness is an obstacle to any kind of resolution. Confident assertions are later admitted to be untrue, and so his tales often lead down a very different path to the one on which they started.

In fact, Vaseline Buddha is less a "story" than a Beckettian monologue, with its creator deliberately failing in his attempt to craft a coherent narrative. Amid a multitude of false starts and reminders of his intention to write a story rushes a stream of words apparently ungoverned by plot or central theme—the writer admits early on to disliking tight narrative form:

But again, I feel, as I always have, resistance against a well-structured, complete story. Stories with an impeccable structure stifle me. A story with a clear plot, which inevitably becomes something about following someone’s whereabouts, has become something that’s nearly impossible for me to write . . . 

Instead, the text seems to flow along, caught up in linguistic eddies, circling around what the writer prefers to call "anecdotes," rather than stories, each to be savoured separately with only a tenuous connection to the whole.

Nevertheless, the narrative, which rewards rereading, does begin to follow faint patterns of repeated concern, coalescing unexpectedly around nodes of interest. One of these is the writer’s contradictory attitude to home and abroad. Anxious to leave, but with a strong dislike of travel, his journeys constantly fail to live up to his expectations, as the reality of the places he visits compromises the idealised versions of them he has constructed from books and documentaries. His preference is to go, but not to see; to spend, for example, only a few short hours in misty Venice, leaving his mental image of the city intact. Often, when he travels, he fails to even leave his hotel room, finding himself unwilling, or unable, to venture out into the city he is visiting. Instead, the reader must make do with descriptions of his rooms, or of what he sees while gazing, for hours, out of the window. It is, in this sense, an anti-travel guide that he is writing.

Of course, there is more to the aimless wandering than this might suggest, with a section set in Paris lying at the heart of the book. The writer travels there with his girlfriend, but abandons her while she is in the shower, checking into a different hotel (with another unavoidable view of the Eiffel Tower). This is all told flippantly enough, but we begin to sense a pattern here; the numbers of former partners, or women who never quite become partners, are starting to add up. This part of the novel, longer than most, serves as a touchstone around which other anecdotes assemble: a girl who invites the writer to her French town and then refuses to see him; a tall German woman in a green sweater with whom he never quite manages to get together. Beneath the light, ambivalent tone, there is a hint of suppressed trauma or loss, and we begin to wonder why exactly he is sitting alone in his room spending a year spinning circles around potential readers.

As in Jung’s other work in English translation (A Most Ambiguous Sunday, and A Chain of Dark Tales), Vaseline Buddha favours long sentences with no apparent destination. Translator Yewon Jung skilfully recreates the narrator’s studied unconcern, piling clause upon clause and tangling readers in a thicket of phrases. The writer makes statements only to deny them shortly afterwards, and delights in tangents, never pursuing a subject directly, but rather circling around it repetitively:

What exerts the greatest influence on my life is things without substance, and I’m turning my life into something without substance, and as I regard the struggle against things without substance, or tangible substance, as the only genuine struggle—this problem of mine seems to be a fundamental problem of the world as well—I have no choice but to clumsily write something without substance.

Although his tone remains detached, as the novel progresses, cracks begin to appear in the writer’s façade. He suffers from frequent dizzy spells which he half-relishes rather than complains about: “I’ve now come to think that there’s something in my dizziness that has to do with something fundamental in my being, and that dizziness may be something at the root of existence. And dizziness is addictive.” Idle mentions of suicide and jokes about his hoards of sleeping pills soon begin to point to someone deeply unhappy with their existence. The circularity of his writing, and his repeated efforts to create a story, are, we begin to realise, themselves a form of therapy—an attempt to work through unexpressed suffering.

Superficially, Vaseline Buddha’s narrative may seem formless, random even, but the text is far tighter than it appears. Casually mentioned ideas foreshadow later stories or echo earlier anecdotes, leaving the reader vaguely aware that there is an overarching structure holding them together, even if its exact nature is elusive. Jung’s influences, though, are clear. Kafka, unsurprisingly, is mentioned repeatedly, but Samuel Beckett is the writer Jung turns to most for inspiration. Besides a fixation with chairs, and an allusion to Beckett’s Murphy (the writer slouches naked in a chair in someone else’s house), the narrative voice returns repeatedly to Molloy, a book our friend regards as his own perfect (anti-) travel guide. Beckett’s novel, too, consists of monologues and a description of a journey; it is hard not to see Jung’s work as an act of homage to the Irish writer.

Finding any overarching meaning in Vaseline Buddha is a rather more difficult matter, as the novel so profoundly lacks narrative drive and focus. Even the title refers only to a throwaway line, in which the narrator idly envisions one of the Buddha statues he has collected on his travels covered in Vaseline. This is a man mired in ennui, writing more for himself than for anyone else; which is not to say, of course, that there is nothing here for the reader. For those willing to adapt to the rhythm of Jung’s anecdotes, there is pleasure to be had from absorbing the narrator’s ambivalent musings on the nature of reality. Despite his apathy and inertia, his failed relationships and chronic illness, there are moments of childlike humour, of refreshingly playful optimism in the midst of all his woes: “A world in which you couldn’t pilfer a luscious fruit or a rose while taking a walk on a bright afternoon or in the middle of the night would indeed be a world without hope.”

The future of K-Lit in translation may lie with the haunting tones of Han Kang’s melancholy stories, or Bae Suah’s spiky rejection of what society expects for Korean women, but there is certainly a place for a writer like Jung who simply pours his thoughts out onto the page—and, I suspect, there are plenty of readers willing to go along for the ride.