Friday, May 10, 2024

The Owl Cries, by Hye-Young Pyun

Arcade Publishing, 2023
originally published 2012 as Seojjok supeuro gatda
translated by Sora Kim-Russell
299 pp

(read in April)

I first came across the author when I read her novel The Hole a few years ago and I've been buying her books ever since.  That novel was absolutely chilling, not only in the telling but also in its implications once that last page had been turned.  Her latest novel, published last year is The Owl Cries, which like The Hole, involves a master of manipulation.  

It's the "off-season" for hiking in the forest where In-su Park is the current ranger, meaning that the forest is closed and no one is allowed in.   Used to turning people away, he is about to do the same to a stranger who arrives in a "nice jacket, with a dress shirt and tie," definitely "not an outfit for hiking in the woods." His boss had warned him that "radical environmentalists or ecologists" liked to show up at times, "to deliver canned sermons to the rangers."  But this man is not a hiker, nor does he fall into the environmentalist/ecologist category -- he is Ha-in Lee,  there to look for his older brother, Gyeong-in who had last spoken to him some six months earlier in a mysterious call in which Gyeong-in was sobbing instead of talking.   Their mother had heard from the brother as well, who could only say that "the owl was crying and the trees were attacking."  He is at the ranger station as a starting point,  because Gyeong-in had last been known to have worked there, prior to In-su taking the job.   Although Ha-in actually hates his abusive brother, their mother was "worried" and he felt it his "duty" to find him.   Questioning In-su Park, however, gets Ha-in nowhere, since In-su had only been in this job a short time and he knows nothing.   Ha-in makes his way to the small company town near the forest but no one there seems to know anything either, leaving him to question whether or not Gyeong-in had actually been there in the first place.    As the dustjacket notes, "when an accident and a death derail the investigation,"  the current forest ranger makes a discovery that helps him to decide that he really wants to know what happened to his predecessor, and sadly, he gets much more than he bargained for in the process.

Ha-in's search for his brother is what launches this story, which ultimately picks up the voices of the various people of this small village, each of whom for his or her own reasons have never left despite the severe bottoming out of  the economy there.  Very slowly, the truth of things begins to emerge as the reader begins to wonder what the hell is keeping all of these people stuck in this place, and what actually happened to Gyeong-in.  

I liked this book, didn't love it. What I did enjoy very much is the author's beautiful descriptions of the landscape and her portrayal of the monstrous (albeit very human, not supernatural) presence who looms over this story,  extremely skilled in the art of manipulation and the exercising of power,  preying upon others for his own purposes.  I love when authors spend time on examining psychologies and she is so very good at that here.   On the other hand, The Owl Cries didn't get tiptop reviews on goodreads or at any of the usual places, and I can sort of understand why. For one thing, whoever was in charge of the dustjacket blurb overdid it with the comparisons to "Stephen King, David Lynch, and the nightmare dystopias of Franz Kafka."  I know from reading about the author that King and Kafka are two authors whose work has been an influence on her own, but really, what is written here is overhyping the novel's content, kind of setting up false expectations.  (I keep swearing to myself that I will stop reading these  blurbs, but I do it anyway, and in some instances it is to my own detriment as a reader.)  And while I normally don't mind bleak, this book has absolutely no breaks in the darkness, and it is more than a bit on the murky side heading into the reveals so that even though answers came, for some reason the experience was less than fulfilling.  I know it's unfair to compare books, but The Hole was so bloody good that I supposed I expected more of the same here, and it was a bit of a disappointment when The Owl Cries just didn't measure up. I feel bad about saying that, but, well, there it is.  It actually killed me not to love this novel, but I can't help it. 

That's not to say someone else may not enjoy it; I'm a bit on the demanding side as a reader.  I'll try again with her Law of Lines which I haven't yet read, although it will be a while.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Confession, by Martín Kohan


Charco Press, 2023
originally published as Confesión, 2020
translated by Daniel Hahn
162 pp

(read in March)

Confession is not a long novel, coming in at less than two hundred pages, but its short length disguises the complexity within. It also has a shocker of an ending that completely rattled me for days after finishing this book.  Related in three interconnected parts, the author sets this novel timewise over three periods: before, during and after Argentina's military dictatorship that existed between 1976 and 1983.

Briefly, since to tell any more would be to utterly ruin the reading experience, the narrator of parts one and three is the grandson of a certain Mirta López, and as the novel opens, he takes the reader back to a time in 1941 when his grandmother was a young girl first becoming aware of her sexuality.  It begins with Mirta confessing to her priest at the church of San Patricio in Mercedes.  Sometimes, she says, she experiences a "powerful tremor, a kind of whirpool, only hot, in her stomach, in her whole belly, a thing kind of like a fever and a perspiration ..." that was only calmed by "squeezing her thighs together."   All of this happens whenever she sees the oldest son of the Videla family walking by her dining room window, either going to or from the train station.  He would come home from his school, arriving on Satudays and going back on Sundays, and Mirta waited for him by her window faithfully every weekend.  As her feelings toward the Videla boy intensify and grow more sexual,  the number of trips she makes to the confessional increase, but  her disclosures grow less candid than previously.   Eventually she realizes that she's confessing with "omissions," realizing that if God is "all-knowing" then He must also be all-forgiving.   Mirta goes on to marry, but not to the Videla boy, who married a year later when a lieutenant in the army at the age of 23.  Interspersed throughout this section is another entire strand dealing with the Rio de la Plata, which makes up part of the border between Uruguay and Argentina and upon the shores of which sits the city of Buenos Aires.   The significance of this second narrative strand is highlighted in the second part of this novel, which describes the actions of a group of people, all of whom have "adopted a new name" to create a sort of anonymity as they plot to "strike at the regime, and in as extreme a way as possible." Their plan had been hatched in July of 1976, with the ultimate goal of   "killing the tyrant."  The group's members work both on the streets and below them, trying to conceal what they're doing from prying eyes and from state surveillance, which is everywhere.  In part three, we are reunited with an elderly Mirta López in the present day, during a visit from her grandson at the facility where she now lives.  The author sets up this section brilliantly, as the  two play a card game called truco, the main complexity of which, as noted here, "lies in the need to deceive the opponent and avoid being deceived."   Her short-term memory isn't what it used to be, but she hasn't lost the long-term memory which during this game her grandson tries to plumb to get answers about what she knows about his father who disappeared during the military dictatorship.  Little by little, in between plays of the game, he is able to elicit information that will ultimately tie all of the pieces of this novel together into a unified and extremely painful whole.  

I am drawn to books set during the time of the military dictatorship in Argentina, and Confession left me absolutely stunned. It continued to haunt me for some time, and reflecting on it now brings back all of the feelings it produced the first time around.    Each section of this novel focuses on some aspect of secrets that are held, thoughts or deeds that are left unspoken, things that are both known and unknown -- and what happens when those make their way to the surface.   The author explores the continuing impact of the past on the present, most especially in the ways in which ordinary lives are often randomly caught up in or bound to history.    It is one of the best books I've read this year, and without hesitation I can definitely recommend it.