Myth retold in novelistic form has become a literary trend: Colm Tóibín’s House of Names, Madeline Miller’s Circe, and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, just to list a few recent works, all play with the concept. The impetus may lie in wishing to unleash a chorus of suppressed voices, usually those of women, in this #MeToo era. Whereas those authors set their stories in ancient times, Hwang transposes the well-known Eastern myth to the globalized, 21st-century stage. The result is a compelling and heartrending account of a North Korean girl overcoming the vagaries of life’s predicaments as she seeks refuge in multiple countries.
Staying faithful to the original myth, Hwang introduces a family whose patriarch is fuming because his wife can’t give him a son. When the seventh child turns out to be a girl as well, the mother abandons her in the mountains, but the family dog comes to the girl’s rescue. Accordingly, her grandmother names her Bari and during one freezing winter repeatedly recounts to her the old folktale. This is the defining moment of Bari’s existential journey; the legend of her namesake returns to haunt her throughout the novel and cements Bari’s fate. Later in the story, she reflects,
When I look back now on how I wound up crossing the ocean and coming all the way to England, I can’t help but blame my name. Grandmother told me the story of Princess Bari every night in our cozy little dugout hut, but it wasn’t until after I was on that ship that I thought about the princess going west in search of the life-giving water — out where the sun sets.
Fate cannot be crueler to Bari. Yet, as if to compensate for her misfortunes, she is endowed with shamanistic talents (or witchery, depending on the reader’s perspective): she can communicate with deaf-mutes as well as with dogs, see dead souls, and split her spirit from her body, usually to alleviate pain during extreme hardship. A burden is set upon her: it’s her duty to find the elixir that will relieve people of life’s inevitable sufferings. Does the life-giving water symbolize forgiveness? Patience to endure? And what ills of humanity can it actually cure?
The setting early in the story is late-1990s North Korea, and Hwang is peerless in his depiction of the mass starvation during the famine. Bari’s father has a respectful official position, but the family has seven daughters plus a grandmother, so they need to be satisfied with one meal a day, a luxury at the time. One day, Bari’s uncle defects to the South, a cardinal sin in North Korea, and the government punishes the family by riving them apart.
To survive, Bari crosses the Tumen River to China, and after many hardships (the deaths of her family members, a solitary roaming across the countryside) she finds a job as a foot masseuse. Another misfortune forces her to board a cargo ship to England, and on that voyage smugglers fittingly named “snakeheads” casually rape women.
It is in London that the novel takes a global turn and ushers in a mishmash of cultures. The names of the characters Bari befriends — Pak Xiaolong, Xiang and Zhou, Uncle Lou, Uncle Tan, Luna, Abdul, Ali, Osman, Auntie Sarah, and Bari’s daughter, Hurriyah Suni — attest to the breadth of the novel’s ethnic palette. A number of these characters are undocumented immigrants, and as Bari interacts and sympathizes with them — and marries a Pakistani Muslim — she realizes that their differences are superficial. Bari listens to her grandfather-in-law’s faith in the holiness of Allah and Muhammad the Messenger of God and thinks,
But this wasn’t surprising to me: ever since I was little, Grandmother used to say there was a Lord in heaven who presided over all of Creation. To me, there wasn’t much difference between the being my grandmother had talked about and the being Grandfather Abdul described. I guess you could say it was like the difference between them eating naan and chapatti, and us eating rice.
Princess Bari is both a coming-of-age story and a survivor’s tale. Its overarching theme is migration, especially that of people from previously colonized countries. Like fireflies that light the dark path of the night, what guides Bari through her harshest moments is the kindness of these neighbors and strangers. Like Bari, they moved not to find a better life but merely to survive. Amid this camaraderie of circumstance, Bari one day has a profound insight: “I realized that life means waiting, enduring the passage of time. Nothing ever quite meets our expectations, yet as long as we are alive, time flows on, and everything eventually comes to pass.”
Hwang rarely writes his novels vicariously; his direct experiences with historical and social tumults in Korea have fed a dozen novels, including The Shadow of Arms (his involvement in the Vietnam War), The Guest (his visit to North Korea), and The Old Garden (his activism during the authoritarian regime of the 1980s). He has traveled to all the places traced in Princess Bari, and it shows in his nuanced descriptions of landscapes: mountain villages and farms in North Korea, snow-covered meadows near the Chinese border, and the bustling streets and immigrant-packed tenement houses of London.
Unlike many foreign-born novels that are written to be agreeable to translators to target as wide an audience as possible, Princess Bari retains aesthetic originality and difficulty. Regional allusions, references, and traditional lyric songs abound. To top it all, the book is awash in North Korean dialect and onomatopoeic adjectives, which Hwang employs to affect poetry in his prose. (In one interesting instance, the Korean exclamatory word “aigo!” is left intact throughout because it has no English equivalent, though readers with no Korean-language knowledge will likely be able to interpret it via context.) For these traits, the novel must have been a daunting challenge to translate. Even so, translator Sora Kim-Russell does an admirable job of recreating the narrative in smooth English.
Unfortunately, some musicality endemic to the original Korean has been lost. Even the novel’s Korean title, Baridegi, is a variation on that of the myth — it lacks the word “princess” and instead adds “-degi,” which denotes a derogatory tone — while the English translation borrows the title verbatim. These two titles indeed suggest contrasting tones.
Among other things, in Princess Bari Hwang addresses a fascinating archetypical contrast between the East and the West. A journey to hell to save souls is not an uncommon myth in the West: Orpheus from Greek mythology and Odin from Norse/Germanic tradition are prime examples. But when Bari’s soul embarks on her journey, Hwang’s depiction of the underworld is vastly different from that of the Western imagination, arguably most influenced by Dante.
Dante’s nine-circle hell is structured like a gigantic funnel through which one progresses downward toward the Lower Hell where the devil resides. The hell as imagined in the East is a flatland covered by the Sea of Blood, the Sea of Fire, and the Sea of Sand. In addition, Hwang includes many life lessons from Taoist and Buddhist teachings spoken by elders, as when Bari’s grandmother says, “Your body that you treasure so much in life is not you. It houses your spirit. When you leave your body behind, you’ll become like us. Sadness, happiness — that all belongs to the world of the living.”
With Princess Bari, Hwang challenges the hegemony of Western norms and myths in world literature, which rarely uses Eastern myth in its storytelling. Anglophone novels and poems default mostly to Ovid’s Metamorphoses or the Bible for symbols, metaphors, and allusions, and novels such as Princess Bari can usher in a more balanced representation of the world. In Hwang’s probing, compassionate work, Western readers unfamiliar with Eastern philosophy and culture will experience new takes on folkloric wisdom born of the enduring collective imagination.
Richard M. Cho is a research librarian for Humanities and Literature at University of California, Irvine. He writes book and movie reviews for the website he founded, www.jjjreview.com.