A lot of students ask me what’s the best way to study English. I always tell them, in Korean, something that a musician friend named Hyo Sang once told me: “연습 많이 살길이다…” (roughly, “Yeonseop mani salkilida…”) which I’m told means something like “The way (literally “road”)of life demands a lot of practice”, or, “Practicing must become a way of life.” It’s exactly the right way of putting it, both in terms of music and in terms of language study.
I never thought I would find a copy of it on the shelves, let alone in Korea. But in the Youngpoong bookshop in the Central City shopping complex attached to the Seoul Express Bus Terminal, I boggled for a moment and then realized that, yes, what I was looking at was that very same book, a decade old and micheviously new-looking (the text reads pretty freshly too, a credit to Mr. Sterling). There it was, nudged between a Christian diatribe and a copy of Ayn Rand. I just had to rescue it. So I plunked down my ten-thousand won (about $9 US I guess) and made off with it. Waaaa, jal hesseoyo! (Aaaah, I did well!), as they say in Korean…
So I picked up a copy of the International Herald Tribune, which is The New York Times‘s International Newspaper, edited in Paris. Page one is splayed with scenes of the disorder of Baghdad. American soldiers haplessly watching as people ransack every building they can get into. And why the hell not? The city is empty of anyone who has stuff to defend… and all the people left behind, all those who are busy surviving this “operation”, have very little or nothing to lose. So they plunder: they plunder the houses of Saddm’s sons, which I have no problem with. They plunder the houses of the wealthy, and that’s not such a problem to me. (The wealthy, lacking in the humanitarian compassion needed to empty the city, fled in classic “me-first” style, so my sympathy with the plight of these propertied people is minimal.) They plunder government offices, which is neither here nor there.
I have been thinking for a few hours, trying to figure out what this book is about. If you haven’t read it, you ought to. Here’s a page of reviews about it from over at Amazon.
This book is impeccably horrible, which is to say that it is horrifying and perfectly so. Süskind is a master of the craft of writing, and the vividness he brings to every moment in this novel is so immersive that just for the quality of the book I cannot recommend it more highly. Suskind’s restraint is stunning; he refrains from any great detailed descriptions of the many murders in the book, and the final one is so deftly done as to be almost beautiful.
Grenouille is a stunning character. He is wickedly evil, but not the kind of evil we are used to in North American storytelling and film; he is small and pitiful and nondescript (at least, after his transformation following his hibernation in the cave). He is worthless, a baby born to a homicidal fishmonger and doomed from the start. The world did him no good, in fact did him a great deal of evil. Had he been born in the twentieth century, it’s possible (though by no means certain) that his outcome would have been different, but that’s beside the point.
Meaning. I am not the sort of person who will ever suggest there is only one sensible meaning for a text, or that a text ought to be read for this or that meaning. That isn’t to say that a text shouldn’t be read in the light of other texts, or of context, of course. I am one of the first people I know (especially here in Korea) to vocally insist on that in any discussion of a text. However, no one reading of a text can ever embody the “meaning” of that text, nor should it attempt to.
What I want to ask, however, is where this book connects out to. I’m not sure what the book is about in this sense… for a book is in some ways about the books which are (referentially) “about” it.
I just discovered something somewhat retarded about the Seoul YMCA in Jongo, Seoul, which is that you can’t swim there without a monthly pass. I explained to the man (in what was, judging from his response, mostly comprehensible Korean) that I was in Seoul only for the weekend, and just wanted to practice, and was willing to pay the W5000 ($6 Canadian) to get access to the pool for one shot, but he said I couldn’t, that there was no way to go to the pool without a YMCA membership card (and my Iksan card is no good in Seoul either).