Pavane for a Dead Princess

By Park Min-gyu


Dalkey Archive
October 2014

Reviewed by Dan Lopez


When his father abandons the family for a life on the silver screen, the unnamed narrator of Pavane for a Dead Princess, Park Min-gyu's entertaining exploration of South Korea's pervasive beauty culture, finds himself adrift in 1980's Seoul.

His mother retreats to the countryside to begin a new life, but Park's protagonist stays in the city. Ostensibly, he remains behind to study for his college entrance exams, but in reality he does very little studying. Instead, he bums around for a while before accepting a job as a valet in the parking garage of a bustling department store. The job is meant as a stopgap until he gets into college, but it proves to be the setting for a pivotal life event. 

At the store he befriends Yohan, a brilliant, enigmatic young man with a dark past. They spend their time together on and off the clock philosophizing and getting drunk at the local dive bar and grill, Kentucky Chicken. A chief topic of conversation is a quiet young woman who works at the store but who everyone ignores because she is "the ugliest woman of the century." Despite her physical faults—or, indeed, because of them—the narrator, who has inherited his father's dashing looks, becomes enamored of her. A relationship slowly develops with the helpful intercession of Yohan. All outcasts in one way or another, the trio forms a tight-knit group, but a series of personal tragedies with far-reaching repercussions conspire to tear their little family apart. What follows is a meditative, frequently wry, examination of a culture that's lost its way.

A new girl—who the protagonist nicknames Dumplings—enters the picture shortly after things take a turn. She is in every way the opposite of the ugly girl: she's beautiful and extroverted while her rival is introspective and glum. She embodies the new Seoul, a booming city with an emergent middle class looking to the West for inspiration on how to live a modern life. At first "[t]hings seemed to go up a notch [. . .] the office's grade point average shot up." Drawing a parallel between beauty and intelligence is troubling on its own, but the broader implications of a beauty-obsessed culture spark an existential crisis for the young protagonist: 

It was all shopping, shopping, shopping, have to wear this, have to wear that, have to get plastic surgery done. With that, [the girls'] average appeal went up. The same could be witnessed in society. The idea of the 'middle class' was becoming a hot social topic at the time, and one had to drive a car that was at least a certain kind of car, make at least a certain amount of money, and have at least a certain kind of life to be seen as living a life worth living. I wondered who was raising the bar and fanning the flames. I wondered what was being destroyed by this trend and who was profiting from it. Capitalism operates on the wheels of shame and is driven by the forces of envy. Every time I saw the girls struggling so hard to become more like the ones they admired, it appeared obvious this power was voluntarily generated, too. As long as shame and envy exist, humans can never escape the shackles of capitalism.

Cultural ennui erodes our protagonist's sense of identification with the larger society, a sense already jeopardized by his father's abandonment. At nineteen he is, in effect, a cultural refugee attempting to build a life for himself in a once familiar place. Is there a solution? Park indicates that overcoming "shame and envy" offer a way forward, but for our protagonist it's easier said than done. He's simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by Dumplings and everything she represents. The ugly girl offered a kind of salvation—or at least respite—from the oscillating emotions, but she's no longer available to him.

Love may not be equal to the task anyway. "All love is founded on myth," Park writes early on. "They're all mistaken beliefs." For Park's protagonist, love may very well bridge the vapid chasm of rampant consumerism, but it leads him straight into a quagmire just as destructive as the aspirational middle-class life the Dumplings of the world embrace. His beloved's repulsive countenance is anathema to Seoul's beauty economy, and thus a life with her ensures a measure of insulation from the pervasive arm of capital, but at what cost? In defining his salvation as that which arises from romantic attachment, he cedes the reins of his own happiness to another. It's not enough to substitute the love plot for capitalism, Park suggests. The answer—if it exists at all—must lie elsewhere.

There are two approaches to writing about systemic ills: tragedy and farce. Park, a well-known critic of effusive seriousness, blends the two to create a tone of optimistic nihilism. Take for instance the protagonist's aimlessness. In theory he spends his time in Seoul studying for college entrance exams, but in reality he's doing anything but. Before getting the job at the department store and meeting Yohan and the ugly girl he fills his days by writing surrealist stories filled with deep, somber thoughts. His efforts meet with little success—perhaps a foregone conclusion considering Park's take on late 20th-century Seoul. Nevertheless, he dedicates himself to his art, even going so far as to hide out on the subway when his mother comes to visit. "I told her I was going to class, then took subway line two, which looped endlessly around the city." He's literally (and figuratively) going nowhere. He's not delusional, though, he's aware of the futility of his literary ambitions even as he pursues them with gusto. "Just as we fool ourselves into thinking we're fulfilling something by going to class," he reflects, "I'd fooled myself into thinking I'd quit class so I could write, when in fact I was living a meaningless life."

Nobody, of course, desires a meaningless life, and Park's protagonist is no exception, so he seeks to muscle meaning into his life in some capacity. The nostalgic opening suggests a happy ending, but all is not as it seems. Before the novel can close, tragedy and farce must play their part. The book finishes with a twist that suggests a grand meaning may, in fact, be a social creation—a subway that loops around endlessly—but that doesn't necessarily invalidate optimism. Art, perhaps, offers at least some framework upon which to build a meaning, however ephemeral that meaning may ultimately prove to be.

Pavane For a Dead Princess is part of Dalkey Archive's series on contemporary Korean literature. At a time when precious few works in translation find their way into the American literary landscape, it's encouraging to find not just a single title, but a wealth of works providing a window into a foreign culture. One of the benefits of reading literature from around the world is seeing ourselves—our lives, our struggles—in others and being reminded that despite disparate histories and customs, we all share a common humanity. It's a double-edged sword, however. Park's Seoul looks to the West for inspiration, anticipating a hard road for the non-Dumplings of the world. If we're the model, what we see in the mirror may not always be a flattering reflection.