Is Momtaking over the universe? From Sarah Palin to Cindy Sheehan, from Amy”Tiger Mother” Chua to Michelle “First Mom” Obama,everywhere you look: there’s Mom, throwing her weight around and telling us offone minute, defending and nurturing us the next. Simply put, we are living inthe Age of Mom, and it seems entirely possible that her huge presence andgrowing power are behind the appearance in this country of Kyung-sook Shin’sPlease Look After Mom, the first of this acclaimed South Korean writer’snovels to appear in English.
ParkSo-nyo, 69-year-old mother of five, has gone missing. Arriving in Seoul fromthe countryside with her husband of over 50 years to visit their children, shehas been accidentally left behind on a crowded subway platform. Her husband, ashe had throughout their married life, simply assumed she was following him. Well,this is the last time anyone takes Mom for granted. Now begins a search,carried out by her children and husband, that becomes an emotional,remorse-filled exploration of the past and a chastening discovery of the Momnobody knew.
Poor Mom.Born in 1936, she was married off against her wishes at a young age to save herfrom being carried off in one of the frequent raids made by renegade NorthKorean soldiers after the end of the Korean conflict. After their marriage, herhusband disappeared for long periods, leaving Mom to give birth to and providefor their growing number of children. This she managed by ceaseless toil andscrimping, to which she added further labor and sacrifice in order to scrapetogether the money to educate at least some of the children. Her own illiteracywas one of her greatest sorrows: “I lived in darkness,” she reflects,”with no light, my whole life.”
Momsubsumed her needs, no matter how pressing, to those of everyone else, aself-sacrifice that was a matter of will power, obdurate humility, and singularintransigence. She would not see a doctor until forced to despite occasions of seriousillness. Indeed, for the last few years before her disappearance, she had beenwracked by debilitating headaches and was increasingly prey to bouts ofconfusion. Alone in the city, she cannot survive on her own.
Needlessto say, her loss makes everyone feel guilty as hell. Her eldest son excoriateshimself for failing to meet his parents at the Seoul Station; instead, he hadbeen at a sauna sweating out the previous night’s booze. A daughter, now awell-known writer, recalls with dismay that she had been flipping through thepages of one of her own novels at a book fair when her mother was abandoned onthat chaotic platform. As for Mom’s husband: his sins are beyond counting. Thedays and weeks pass, and possible Mom-sightings are reported. A dirty,seemingly addled woman resembling So-nyo is spotted in places where herchildren had once lived after leaving the country.
It mustbe said this novel comes very close to being just plain maudlin; still, it issaved by a couple of elements. For one thing, much of the story, which is toldfrom several points of view including Mom’s, is pursued in the second person. Thetactic produces a sense of immediacy and urgency which delivers a fineaccusatory punch: “You’d meet to discuss how to find Mom and one of youwould unexpectedly dig up the different ways someone else had wronged her inthe past. The things that had been suppressed, that had been carefully avoidedmoment by moment, became bloated, and finally you all yelled and smoked andbanged out the door in a rage.”
Further,the gathering weight of Mom’s sorrows and her family’s shame, remorse, and pityare counterbalanced by the novel’s concrete detail and Shin’s storytellingshrewdness. Bit by bit, episodes from the past emerge to provide glimpses ofSo-nyo’s unknown and surprising private life, as well as a picture of therigors of a material world that has disappeared as far as her children areconcerned. Events take place on the cusp of Korea’s economic development, when,through ceaseless labor and self-denial, a pre-industrial generation squeezedfrom itself every ounce of surplus to produce an affluent modern one.
Shin describesa peasant way of life—of scarcity confronted by heroic toil and frugality—wonderfully.Scene after richly detailed scene shows planting, harvesting, cooking, andpreserving; the primitive dwellings and the formidable nature of distance. Mom’sindefatigable provision for her children continues even when they’ve moved toattend school in the city, three of them living in one rented room. Her eldestson remembers her arriving laden with bundles:
The sidedishes that came out of the newspapers and plastic and squash leaves were movedonto plates and into bowls from the cupboard, and Mom brushed off her hands,quickly peeled the covers off the blankets, and washed them. She made kimchiwith the salted cabbage she had brought, and scrubbed the pot that had turnedblack from the coal fire, and cleaned the portable stove until it shone, andsewed the covers back on the blankets after they dried in the sun on the roof,and washed rice and made bean-paste soup and set the table for supper…. When heand his siblings took a spoonful of rice, Mom placed a piece of stewed beef oneach person’s spoon. They urged her to eat, but she insisted, “I’m nothungry.”
The novelpretty much pulls out all the stops on Momidolatry, including a culminatingscene with Michelangelo’s Pietà. But it’smore than that: it is also the story of one particular family with its ownhistory spread out and picked over in absorbing detail.