The shape and intention of the stories, pairs that make up two wholes that are then explicated by notes, echo the conceits of cell division, DNA and quantum physics.
This is a book as much about the process of translation as it is about science fiction, Buddhism and how to live among people. The lovers’ stories are as powerful and clear as the middle stories are difficult and woolly, but the middle stories offer a sort of key to the outer ones: While the beings called Prophets who live in the Dark Realm are obsessed with measuring the virtues of merging and dividing, the star-crossed lovers of our near future are striving to come together while the world keeps them apart. The shape and intention of the stories, pairs that make up two wholes that are then explicated by notes, echo the conceits of cell division, DNA and quantum physics.
More simply put: While the outer stories are much more enjoyable and moving than the inner stories, they all benefit tremendously from the supplemental notes, and leave a reader feeling as if the purpose of the book was to showcase not so much a collection of narratives but the love and respect between several people working together, sharing their minds across languages and distance to beautiful, dizzying effect.
✹She succumbs to an old hallucination of ringing bells and a lovely, mysterious woman with red ribbons trailing from her long black braid.
In many ways, Angela Mi Young Hur’s FOLKLORN (Erewhon Books, 408 pp., $26.95) is also about translation: translation as physical movement, from Korea to the United States to Sweden to Antarctica; secret knowledge translated across languages and time; and translation as interpretation across genres, from folk tales and family history to experimental physics and poetry.
Dr. Elsa Park has spent years trying to get as far away from her mother’s Korean myths as possible, and with them, her mother’s conviction that the women of their family are doomed to repeat the patterns of tragic folk tales: stories of girls stolen or sacrificed, lost and recovered. Elsa is determined to choose science over superstition, but while researching neutrinos — so-called ghost particles — in Antarctica, she succumbs to an old hallucination of ringing bells and a lovely, mysterious woman with red ribbons trailing from her long black braid. Thrown off balance, Elsa pivots her research toward reconciling the stories of her inheritance with her scientific work, in order to find a way into — and more crucially, a way out of — her mother’s tales.
Elsa’s voice is an elegant punch to the face, a series of refusals — of politeness, of fellow feeling, of any intimacy separate from brutality. She’s sometimes shockingly, almost helplessly cruel to people attempting to be kind to her, as if speaking around a mouth full of broken glass. I found myself loving her for the messiness of her overlapping truths, the mixture of resentment, fear, love and anger directed at her family, colleagues and would-be lovers.
Integral to “Folklorn” is a sense of stories as both constitution and escape, of their capacity to trap people as much by faulty representation as by erasure. When Elsa is young, her mother tells her that “our entire people have been telling the wrong stories, making a wretched mess of our history. … No wonder we get invasions and occupations, war. … What kind of stories, I wonder, do the white countries tell of themselves?” Once Elsa is grown, she paraphrases her mother despite herself, arguing that “by limiting the neutrino’s story, we’ve constrained our own cosmic existence.”