07 Nov / Tongue by Kyung Ran Jo, translated by Chi-Young Kim
Here’s what stands out most about this slim Korean novel for me: it’s surprisingly not Korean. Except for the few Korean names, virtually no other Korean markers exist within these pages, which I found rather strange in a novel set in Seoul featuring the lives of contemporary Korean young professionals. Maybe it’s just me … but in a story so infused with the tastes and textures of – and even historical tidbits about – food, I might have expected at least one tiny whiff of kimchi, but that’s definitely not the case here.
The basic story, however, is definitely (sadly) universal: a love affair gone very wrong. A young chef loses her live-in architect boyfriend of seven years to another woman. He abandons her, also leaving behind his aging dog Paulie (yet another non-Korean detail). She wallows for seven months (the chapters are named for the first seven months of the year, so no difficult math necessary here). She closes the cooking school she ran in the perfect kitchen the boyfriend created for her, and goes back to work at the celebrated Italian restaurant where she got her exceptional training. As she recovers her senses, she sets in motion plans for the ultimate meal for her cheating lover that she hopes will finally set her free.
The word ‘wallow’ is probably all the clue you need as to my reactions about the book. As slim as it is, so much self-pity makes for a longer-than-necessary read. I also couldn’t understand the chef’s blindingly pathetic devotion to the architect; some of that endless wallowing might have been replaced with a few more pages developing his flat character beyond representing him as just another schmuck in a handsome package. Thankfully, the cleverly inserted tidbits about food – cabbage broth helps with insomnia (!), something I must try! – were definitely welcome morsels.
The writer Kyung Ran Jo is apparently “a rising international literary star,” and Tongue was an instant bestseller when it debuted in Korea in 2007. The shock value at book’s end, plus allegations of plagiarism, just might have helped up sales. Currently, Tongue remains Jo’s first and only novel available in English. I admit that I picked up the title because of its translator, Chi-Young Kim; given her linguistically transformative prowess, Kim has certainly rendered Jo’s tale into a smooth, seamless volume. Hopefully an equally exacting editor will make Jo’s next title that much more satisfying.
Published: 2009 (United States)