13 Jul / The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun, translated by Lizzie Buehler [in Shelf Awareness]
Pristine beaches, spectacular landscapes, cultural landmarks might have been the go-to tourist destinations once upon a time, but in Yun Ko-eun’s sly, compelling novel, The Disaster Tourist, scenes of death and destruction are where the people really want to go. Global voyeurism is succeeding, with luxurious accommodations, and travelers assuage guilt by volunteering for a few hours during these tightly organized, schadenfreude–fulfilling excursions.
Jungle, where Yona Ko has been working for 10-plus years, is one of these travel providers, “surveying disaster zones and moulding them into travel destinations.” As a programming coordinator, Yona is “one of the brains of the company,” charged with ferreting out “new and wilier disasters.” Her professional success makes her a personal target of Team Leader Kim’s sexual abuse. She’s not alone – many have come forward – but Human Resources offers nothing more than “This kind of incident happens all the time … If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” When Yona finally submits her resignation, Kim instead offers her a month-long break, assigning her to evaluate one of the company’s less-popular packages.
Yona chooses “Desert Sinkhole,” which promises “volcanoes, deserts and hot springs all in the same location.” After a full day of airplane-bus-and-boat travel, Yona arrives on the island nation of Mui, joined by a teacher and her young daughter, a writer, a college student, and the hired guide. With the new oceanside resort, Belle Époque, as home base, the six explore vestiges of genocide, perilous hazards, and continued misfortune. And then it’s already time to go home, but on the journey to the airport, Yona gets separated from the group – without her passport, wallet, luggage, and only her dying phone. She manages to return to Belle Époque, where the resort manager eventually presents her with a marketing plan to boost Mui’s disaster-desirability and thereby save the residents from obscure starvation. Put like that, Yona can hardly refuse, regardless of the fatal damage ahead.
Yun’s English-language debut arrives in an agile translation by Lizzie Buehler, who also translated Yun’s forthcoming story collection, Tale for One. Spare as her novel may be, Yun methodically confronts the contemporary devolution of humanity through systemic sexism and racism, corporate plundering, the haves’ malaise, the have-nots’ victimization, the in-betweens’ complicity. Her disturbing narrative might initially feel impossibly far-fetched, but Yun skillfully exposes an insatiability both to create and to consume anomalous experiences at any cost. With deft ingenuity, she transforms seeming surreality into chilling reality.
Shelf Talker: Award-winning Korean writer Yun Ko-eun slyly, compellingly exposes global voyeurism – at any cost – in The Disaster Tourist.