Choi Jin-young : 해가 지는 곳으로 (To the Warm Horizon)
I suppose that I had to read a pandemic novel sooner or later. This one seems to be as good as any other and better than most
We meet one of our protagonists at the beginning of the book.She is an unnamed Korean, though, almost at the end of the book we learn that she is called Unni. As far as we can tell, the pandemic starts in an unspecified country. She is married to Dan and they had two children: Haerim and Haemin.
Haemin now (many years after the events described in the novel) lives in Warsaw. His wife recently gave birth to their fourth child. Haerim died when she was eleven they left Korea as a result.
When the pandemic broke out they assumed that the government would be able to deal with it. It seemed to be happening in a distant country so it did not affect them. However it did spread to Korea and their daughter died. They and many others fled from Korea to Russia where they thought, incorrectly, the pandemic may be less virulent.
We follow three groups of people. The first is our initial narrator, her husband, Dan and their son Haemin. We lose track of them for a while and focus on two other groups.
Dori has a younger sister, Joy. First their mother and then their father die. Before dying, her parents assured Dori that things would be fine, that a solution would be found. Dori realised that it was just the opposite. That the world would most certainly be upended. That human determination would turn crisis into despair. That intelligent people would not find a solution but a bigger disaster.
She takes her sister to Incheon port and realises that tickets are very expensive, far more than she can afford, so she steals some and she steals some for the next part of the journey, till,finally, she is caught and they have to flee. They are now in Russia. Where are they going? asks Joy.
We’re … looking for summer.
I pointed to the sun.
—There, over the horizon. Where the sun sets.
Instead, while hiding in an abandoned house, they meet Jina’s family. Jina comes from an extended family but many had died. The remainder of the family set off in two box trucks under the command of Jina’s father (her mother has died). Whem they meet Dori and Joy, Jina is adamant that they should take them along even though most of the relatives are opposed to the idea. They already have one extra passenger: Gunji, a former neighbour who had been abused by his father and bullied at school. Jina also insist they should take him along. Gunji also has a dream – a warm ocean where I can build a house and swim around and catch fish.
Dori and Joy try to keep apart from the family, though riding with them. However, she and Jina become close and have a brief lesbian fling. We later learn that Dori had a similar relationship with a girl at her school.
Where are they going? No-one knows. Jina’s father just keeps on driving, looking for petrol but also just going on. As much as he tried not to let it show, Jina’s father seemed to hesitate at every turn whether to continue west in search of a city or drive north towards Siberia. The farther west we went, the more likely we were to run into bandits and the virus; farther north, it would be harder to endure the cold. Perhaps there is somewhere where the virus has not spread.
While the virus is seemingly the issue, there is a worse danger. As time went on, more people died from violence and arson. A strange new religion that promoted murder as a form of repentance became popular. There is also a strong rumour that eating the livers of children offers a cure.
It soon becomes apparent that men – virtually all men, including those that seemed decent and reasonable – have become violent. The violence includes random raping – most of the women in this book that survive will end up being raped – and random killing, partially for protection but often just for its own sake. Dori and Joy end up on their own again, while thing do not go well for Jina and her family.
Is there anywhere left to go? They come to a big city – A big city, mercilessly destroyed. Heaps of shattered concrete, building remnants scattered like scraps of paper.
Meanwhile, Gunji is the only one fairly content with his lot. He has left Jina’s family and is on his own but there is no father to beat him, no bullying. He is free and heading for Africa to find his warmth.
We meet Unni, Dan and Haemin again and Unni reminisces on her not entirely happy life with Dan but we know she survives as she is still alive, much later, as described at the beginning of the book.
This book was published in 2017, so before the covid pandemic of 2020-21. However, though it is about a pandemic, it is much more about how people react to the pandemic and its aftermath and, as mentioned, the answer is not well. The men are violent, the women (and children and quite a few men) are victims. The strong – those with guns – win. When the strongest group takes over Russia, that would become the new Russia. Clearly our author, with some justification, has no faith in human goodness and kindness, except, just slightly, the power of love, but only love without men involved.
Lessons for the covid pandemic? The first lesson is obvious. As soon as there is an outbreak, there is a good chance that nowhere is safe. It will soon spread across the globe, as happened with covid. The second lesson is that if it gets really bad, it will not only be the virus that is the problem but humans, particularly men. Find/build a bunker, get lots of food and guns and hunker down.
First published in 2017 by Minumsa Publishing Co., Ltd
First English translation in 2021 by Honford Star
Translated by Soje