Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon (tr. Jung Yewon). Deep Vellum Publishing. 184pp, $14.95.
In Jung Young Moon’s novel Vaseline Buddha, the narrator lurks in every one of its paragraphs, constantly disrupting the flow of his own narrative whenever it shows a hint of becoming a full-fledged story. “Free-wheeling” might be too modest a phrase to capture the excess of freedom the narrator exhibits in his chaotic romp. Jung has taken the wheel of narrative from his book and hid it, or perhaps he has destroyed it. His carriage will never get the reader from point A to point B. Our trickster guide will teleport his visitor through broken images in an elliptical dance around what is beyond language. To borrow Wallace Stevens’ line, Jung frolics through the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Early on in the book, the narrator talks about how shedding darkness on things will reveal truths that shedding light won’t. From there, his novel pivots to become a “long thought” that leaves many things unsaid in its numerous half-formed vignettes. A single image often jumps out of the narrator’s stream of consciousness, which is then transformed into a gallery of its possibilities: the narrator comes across an apple on a bench, or a shape of an apple on a bench. It could actually be an apple shaped imprint, he thinks, left there during light snow and now gone. But he can’t help but suggest that it could also be a bite mark left in the snow, which he may have imagined as an imprint of a half-eaten apple, left on a bench in a European city after snow. That city is the place where he aimlessly wandered after being rejected by a woman he hardly knew, but there may never have been a woman, and he may never have gone to this city, and there may never have been an apple.
Jung’s radical association gets us to a point where a thing is both visible and invisible at the same time. The narrator questions his own act of seeing and retelling what he observed. He constantly teases the reader by questioning the reality of everything that he talks about, while also being unsure himself. The narrator and the author appear as separate entities as well. The narrator, the author, and the act of storytelling get coiled into a comical struggle, in which they constantly undermine one another, like the Three Stooges, except it is not a slapstick of bodies but words. In a rambling monologue a pattern of motifs may be discerned, even though the very definition of rambling resists any semblance of structure.
Translating one of the most experimental novels to come out from South Korea in recent memory is no easy task, and Yewon Jung’s translation dutifully recreates Jung Young Moon’s sustained deconstruction of sentences and narratives. Still, there are certain basic differences between English and Korean grammar that have yet to be conveyed successfully by any English translator of Korean language. The hallmark of Jung Young Moon’s style in Korean is that his words are almost always plain spoken, and the repetitions feel natural and quick to grasp. The real difficulty in translating Jung Young Moon is in how he uses the built-in ambiguity of pronouns and tense in Korean syntax. Korean allows the syntactic subject to be omitted from the sentence, especially when that subject is obvious. There is no “it is raining” in Korean, there is only “raining.” Thus, pronouns are hardly ever used unless they are there to stress or embellish a certain point. In the case of Vaseline Buddha in which the narrator and the author are two distinct entities, the natural ambiguity of Korean sentences suddenly becomes a key component in creating uncertainty as to the identity of the speaker at any given moment. Korean grammar leads the reader to subconsciously fill in the blanks so to speak, and by foregrounding this subconscious mechanic in his prose, Jung forces the reader to confront the oddness of the narrator’s shifting identity. This is possible not simply because the narrator is saying that he is many different things but because the very language he uses keeps his identity ambiguous.
A similar play with uncertainty happens with the tenses in Korean grammar. In Korean, the verbal tense of any given sentence often does not explicitly say that what is being described is happening now or has happened or will happen. Past, present, and future tend to be left for the reader to interpret in the context of the story. Again, Young Moon is able to manipulate this feature into creating many scenes that could be happening in the past, the present, or the future so that all of time suddenly becomes present in his stories and asides.
This key aspect of written Korean language, the ambiguity of the subject and the tense, sadly, is not something that is easily translatable. We could try to translate it as literally as possible, but it will end up being completely nonsensical in English, unless we are willing to accept the levels of prose experimentation on par with Gertrude Stein or others. However, as it has been mentioned already, one of the wonderful qualities of Jung Young Moon’s style in the original is that his prose is quite approachable. He is able to create an experimental novel without straying from the vernacular. In keeping with this important characteristic of Vaseline Buddha, Yewon Jung keeps her version as simple and approachable as the original. Pronouns and tenses naturally become exact and fixed in English syntax, and Yewon does not try to bend the rules of English to approximate her Korean source. But, she does manage to pull off the grand length of Jung Young Moon’s sentences into English with their strange and fascinating repetitions.
Jung Young Moon’s novel is not for those who are looking for a plot. Any reader will be hard pressed to give summary once they are finished with the book. The drama of Vaseline Buddha lies in the author’s labor to not tell a story, to constantly strip away any structure or form that creeps up on his book. On one hand, his efforts show us that a pattern recognition in chaos is inevitable, and that our human language will begin to latch on to such patterns to make sense of what we are seeing, to make it more comfortable for us to inhabit this world. By continuing to reject the instinct for the order of things, the novel seeks to shed darkness on glimpses of the void. In those intense moments of deconstruction, the nothing that the language cannot express can be felt briefly in a moment of silent understanding amid cascade of words.
Jack Saebyok Jung is a translator of Korean poetry. He graduated with B.A. in English from Harvard University and received his M.A. in Korean Language and Literature from Seoul National University. He is currently working on translating selected works of modernist Korean poet Yi Sang, which will be published by Wave Books.
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