The Impossible Fairy Tale is Han Yujoo’s debut in the English language. Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong, the book is a surreal meditation on violence. It’s divided into two parts. The first is the story of two protagonists, both of them twelve-year-old school-going girls.
There is Mia, who is spoilt but unloved, who has two fathers who will give into every demand she makes, but a mother who often makes her feel unwanted. She wants to grow up faster, she wants to own a dog, she wants to feel love. She envies the life of her friend Inju who owns a big yard, a dog, and has a grandmother. She doesn’t realise that she is in turn the object of everyone’s jealously. She is oblivious to her surroundings, constantly in her own world, like any twelve-year-old.
Mia’s name means two things – she is the “beautiful child” who is also the “lost child.” The other curious protagonist is the unnamed Child. The Child is unnamed because she does not deserve a name. She is like vermin; she crawls around in hideous spaces leaving bloody scabs as her only remnants. She exists like a shadow. She relishes her anonymity. She is unknown to her classmates. She is ignored by her teacher. She is constantly threatened by the tyranny at home. But the reader only gets clues to her helpless existence, seeing, instead, an independently-driven, violently outrageous individual.
A school of violence
We inhabit the two protagonists’ school-existence with them – the kind of existence where everyone lives in equations. There are the lucky ones and the unlucky. Mia is one of the lucky because she lacks no material objects. The big bully who brags about throwing chicks down his roof to kill them is lucky because he is feared. The special needs child who is constantly bullied is not lucky. But the Child isn’t just unlucky. She is so much more. These children are all described by the teacher as “half-plant, half-animal.”
Yujoo is on the trail of Korean women who are being translated into English. In a way, the dreamy horror of her “half plant” children might remind the reader of Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian. But these children are half-plants in a different way. Their existence is troubling because the half-plant is supplanted by the half-animal. They are being nourished by their own animalistic urges. As children they are thought to be innocent and are ignored by the adults in the room. What violent urges lurk under their skin is only known to the reader who’s given a glimpse into their strange and mysterious lives.
Violence isn’t just an important theme in Yujoo’s book, but in her life. She talks about the violence that we normalise every day, says it “eats away at our minds.” In her fairytale, she has no adults performing the acts of cruelty. Though one knows the adult are imparting lessons in brutality, this violence is celebrated by the children.
Yet, the most violent thing in the entire book is the act of writing. It isn’t the wings that are painfully plucked from the beautiful butterflies. It isn’t the pigeons that are targeted and slaughtered with sling-shots. It isn’t the “fainting” game the children play openly in the classrooms when the teacher exits; choking each other till one of them can faint and then rise back from death. Of course these scenes are horrifying and gritty and nightmarish. But the most violent Yujoo gets is when she gets her classroom to set their pens against paper. An innocent act that transforms their lives into a hellish dreamscape.
The children all write journals that they submit to their teacher. The Child re-writes their journals to expose their latent desires: “I want to kill too,” she writes for the perfect Mia. Her shadow-like existence with ripped out thumbnails, hidden scars on her bony thighs, uneaten lunches fed to a snarling cat, urges her to act in a hallucinatory and often awful ways. These ominous sentences she adds compels their teacher to threaten them with police action. But he cannot understand what would make one commit an act this insidious. The reader for the most part doesn’t understand either.
But the Child is still a child. She is helpless. She is frightened. She is hurt. You feel empathy for her. You feel empathy for her affiliation with words:
“Legs and hips are bad. Because they rhyme with begs and whips. Fingers and toes are just as bad. There aren’t many good words. The best word is eye. Because it’s the same even when you read it backward, and it sounds exactly the same as I. But maybe it’s not good after all, because it rhymes with die. But die has more than one meaning. And there’s also dye. I throw a die. I swallow dye. I die.”
From novel to meta-novel
Hong’s translation succeeds in retaining the mysterious way with which Yujoo plays with language. She retains the short repetitive sentences that add to the horror lurking in the story. The second part of the novel suddenly shifts the story to the author’s own. She dives into her hyper-surrealist dreams and the act of writing. Here one wonders whether Hong’s faithfulness to the original text doesn’t become too clunky: “Brick lips open. Tears flow from brick eyes. Brick pants. Brick words escape at once. Brick words disappear at once.” Perhaps the intent isn’t to understand the meaning of these dreams. Perhaps it just elevates the distress mystery can sometimes cause the reader.
Upon reading further into the meta-narrative of the second part, there is a chilling realisation: It is the author who is the most violent of all – the author who created Mia and the Child. The author who didn’t give the story a beginning or ending. Often repetitive and staccato sentences contribute to the dreaminess of it all. No, the novel is not dream-like. There is nothing dreamlike about this novel. Yet it is dreamy. Dreary and dreamy, not dreamlike.
The author in the meta-narrative has a realisation when she begins to write the Impossible Fairy Tale: it is possible to make people happy by writing about nightmares. And that is what she does. She doesn’t shield us from the economic ruin, domestic abuse, and alienation in her society. But she doesn’t finish her book, and there are no conclusive endings to either Part 1 or Part 2. She lets it all haunt her as much as it haunts the reader.
There is no escape from the impossible, that is what she tells us.
The Impossible Fairy Tale, Han Yujoo, translated from the Korean by Janet Hong, Speaking Tiger.