Let’s see if we can figure out why this paper-thin work of fiction won wide recognition and a literary award for its author.
Snow Hunters introduces . . . let’s count them: eight characters:
- Yohan, a North Korean soldier captured by UN forces late in the Korean war;
- Peng, his friend from adolescence who fights by his side;
- An American medic;
- A Japanese sailor;
- Kiyoshi, a Japanese soldier in World War II who becomes a tailor in a Brazilian coastal town;
- Peixe (“Fish”), who tends the cemetery and the parish garden;
- Santi, a young street boy; and
- Bai, a teenage girl who wanders the streets with Santi in settlements along the Brazilian coast.
Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon ★★★☆☆
A few others make brief appearances from time to time, but this is the cast of principal characters. In Snow Hunters, we follow Yohan from the POW camp on the southern coast of the Korean peninsula, onboard ship, to Brazil, through the three years of his apprenticeship in Kiyoshi’s tailor shop, to his life as the town’s sole tailor a decade after the Korean War has ended in an armistice.
The Korean-American writer Paul Yoon paints Yohan’s portrait and those of the other seven characters in the most minimal fashion, with rarely a stroke of color, much like a monochromatic Japanese screen-painting. Everything happens, mostly in flashbacks — war, the explosion of a land mine, a long sea journey to a new world, a hint of romance with a mysterious young woman — yet nothing really happens. Life, or its stylized, fictional equivalent, simply makes its way through the pages of this spare, unadorned novelette.
Snow Hunters might be called an historical novel, since it’s set in a time more than half a century ago, yet it’s difficult to feel comfortable with that label. There’s virtually no history in this historical novel. Read the book, and you’ll learn nothing about the Korean War, about tailoring, or about Brazil in the 1950s and 60s. Presumably, Yoon saw universal truths — ahistorical truths — in the circumstances he describes. I didn’t.
Snow Hunters represents the sort of writing that wins literary awards. In fact, practically everything Paul Yoon writes seems to do so. I guess this is one more reminder that I’m not a fan of “literature.”
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