I Went to See My Father
Penguin Random House | April 11, 2023
Early in Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel, I Went to See My Father, translated by Anton Hur, the narrator Hon realizes she does not know her father. He has always worked in the background, intent on his goal of paying his five children’s tuition. When Hon was growing up, her father cultivated rice fields and raised beef cattle, owned a small shop and found work in other parts of South Korea during the winter. His family was supported by his labor and took him for granted, the selfless figure toiling to advance the possibilities for the next generation. But of course, parents are also human beings who have individual wants and needs, which is what the adult Hon discovers when she returns to her childhood home to help care for her elderly father.
The narrator, like Shin, is a writer, and I Went to See My Father relates Hon’s discovery of a more complete portrait of her father, merging the selfless man with the selfish one. It is also acoming to terms with the tragic loss of her adolescent daughter, after which Hon remained emotionally and physically distant from her family for several years. The impetus for the novel is the simple fact that her father cried after his wife was taken to a hospital in Seoul, and he’s left alone. The strange occurrence of his tears is enough to reach through Hon’s grief and bring her home to help him. As she travels south to J—, she remembers that when she left home for school, her father also wept. She remembers her guilt when one day she passed him on a bridge and looked away.
Everything that occurs during Hon’s stay provides a path into her father’s past. As the title suggests, the novel’s present story line is the day-to-day of any caretaker: Hon arrives in J—, makes her father dinner, and is surprised when he wakes in the night to wander. The majority of the five long chapters happen in the past: Hon remembers her father, reads some letters exchanged between him and Eldest Brother, and interviews people who knew him. Many things she knows already. He grew up during the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. He became a farmer because he had to provide for his siblings. Sometimes the point of view slips into Hon’s father’s, her “I” becomes his “I” as he recalls his own past. The narrative tends to drift, partly because of its emphasis on memory and partly because of the soft flow of Shin’s syntax, expertly translated by Hur.
Then there are the surprises that Hon discovers. Her father has been waking in the night and wandering for thirty years. Hon brings him to the doctor who diagnoses him with panic attacks, anxiety, and depression that have worsened because they were left untreated. Below the letters between Hon’s father and Eldest Brother are another stack of letters, which Hon can’t read before being interrupted by her father. The next thing she knows he is burning letters, leaving behind a “charred fragment” with “letters [Hon] could just about make out spelled Soonok.” The outlines of an affair are traced through Hon’s mother’s recollections, but her father won’t talk about Kim Soonok, the young woman he met in Seoul when he spent winters away from home.
That secrets exist among family members isn’t new material for fiction, yet the plot line is constantly compelling because families have their own ways of keeping secrets and are affected by them differently. Hon’s family actively strives to cover up almost anything. “Throughout late spring and summer, our family kept telling each other things that we urged not to tell each other.” Her siblings do not tell their mother about her worsening cancer. In turn, Hon’s mother urges Hon not to tell her father, like her father urges Hon not to tell her mother about a particularly difficult night terror. They don’t want to hurt each other, yet once the secret is revealed, the hurt comes no matter what. Hon often thinks during her stay in J—: “I knew nothing about my father…and an unexpected loneliness flooded me.” The portions of Hon’s father’s life that have been kept from her leave her feeling like he is someone she doesn’t know. Yet she can be accused of the same, keeping her family distant after her daughter’s death.
Another discovery that Hon makes about her father is how circumstance has determined the course of his life. A war-time friend of her father’s tells her, “Some people, you see, their destinies are decided by their times and situations.” But this sentence is as true for Hon as it is for her father. The accident that killed her daughter is a determining situation, as the Japanese occupation and Korean War were for her father. She understands for the first time how extraordinary it is that he lived, and at the same time, she listens when he breaks the silence around Hon’s daughter. He tells her that “the business of living did not necessarily mean [she] had to just keep going forward. That if [she] looked back and saw that it was good, [she] could return to it.” He encourages her to let her daughter go and by doing so prepares his daughter for the time when he will be the one who is gone.