Choi Jin-young (author), Soje (translator). To the Warm Horizon, Honford Star, 2021. 172 pgs.
Originally published in 2017, To the Warm Horizon is perhaps best seen as a curious example of a “weird fiction”, which is a proper literary genre and is by no means a derogatory term. Works in this genre often radically reimagine supernatural and horrific elements and it is difficult to simply classify them as “speculative fiction”.
To the Warm Horizon may have an optimistic title, but the premise of its plot is dark, chillingly dystopian, and, at least before the Covid pandemic, almost unthinkable. The story is mostly centred on the voices of Dori and a number of side characters, including her silent sister Joy, as they flee their hometowns due to a deadly virus causing carnage, resulting in a quasi-post-apocalyptic world. Reading this 21st-century exodus about how the sisters first escape to Russia but ultimately to nowhere, is particularly chilling in 2021 and 2022, as the world is caught up in a global pandemic and Russia too is currently out of bounds to much of the world’s population (although for a much different reason).
Beneath this “weirdness”, however, is a rich and perceptive portrayal of humanity. In a relatively short but unique book, Choi manages to pack surprisingly rich and various observations about humanity in a time of crisis, partly thanks to the shifting perspectives adopted by the narrative, showing multiple events in different timelines.
As mentioned, the book is not set in a particular place as the characters are constantly on the road and place names are only sparingly mentioned, suggesting that disasters disrupt a sense of geography. At the same time, national identities also break down in the face of survival. Readers expecting an analysis of Korean society will be disappointed, as there is very little direct comment on the author’s native country. Thus, this novel perhaps even challenges the label “South Korean literature”, as apart from its being translated from Korean, there is almost no other trace of “Korean culture”’. Instead, the scale of the novel is much bigger than just one country. It is therefore able to speak comparatively to many more novels in world literature that touch on similar issues post-disaster.
There is for example abundant and profound reflection on the ugliness of humanity in a dog-eat-dog world, where social cohesion breaks down and communities turn lawless, devoid of any social pressure and cultural convention. Propelled by the basest desire of survival, people commit atrocious violations that threaten others’ self-identity, corporeal safety, and mental stability. Predatory capitalism also thrives in disasters when resources are scarce. Amid the ever-shifting circumstances, Choi however portrays a few positive things, including the unchanging sisterly bond between Dori and Joy, as well as the feelings of love germinating between Dori and a woman called Jina. In a time of dystopia, perhaps sexuality does not need labels. It is the love that counts, the depth of the connection and mutual feelings between the two women that becomes fuel for continuing to live.
Meanwhile, the sense of time is also disorientated. As readers, we are sucked into the subjective time of the characters as they narrate their first-person viewpoints. Thus, in a way, I find myself losing sense of the timeline of events, and it is no longer relevant when the disaster starts (and perhaps therefore, axiomatically, when it will end). Essentially, during reading, the sense of time is left to the pace of the characters, and readers are not in control of how fast or slow the narrative progresses. Because of the numerous first-person narratives, each proceeding at a different pace, readers have less incentive to skip ahead, as you never know if you might miss some important detail. But then, is it even important? This is a novel that focuses on voice, not plot. Its “selling point” is the reflection of humanity and depth of contemplation—another “weird,” conflicting effect that the novel gives off.
This explains why there are many long, reflective, almost stream-of-consciousness passages attributed to a few characters in the novel—Dori, Gunji, Jina, Ryu—those who continue to “think” and to reflect. The rhythm of these passages is often particularly well translated:
I got mad at the laundry tangled in the washing machine. I got mad at the noisy vacuum cleaner in my hand. I got mad at the dust floating in the air. I used the kids’ lotion because I couldn’t make time buy my own products. I kept wearing my autumn windbreaker through the end of the year and caught a nasty cold because I didn’t have time to drop my winter coats off at the laundromat. Dead houseplants and expired food and off-season clothes and worn-out shoes and recyclable boxes and broken objects piled up around the house without ever finding their place.—p. 80
These gushes of thoughts underline how important voices are in storytelling—instead of communicating clever twists and complex story arcs, literature should also encourage an empathic understanding of others. It is in this light that, enigmatically, the only missing voice for most of the novel is that of the silent sister, Joy’s. It therefore comes as a freshness when she “speaks” for the first time in the epilogue. Able to “see beyond sound”, she remains the most oblique character in this novel, and partly due to the problem of length described below, readers may find her portrayal the thinnest and the most wanting.
Perhaps the sense of “weirdness” comes most acutely in the ending, which is abrupt and far too brief, and is in my view the novel’s biggest weakness. In the last vignette, titled “Us”, for the first time denoting plural voices, Dori and Jina engage in a conversation that ends nowhere. The only thing that we are certain of is that Dori confesses her love to Jina in the very last line, but this is a relationship we already know of. Coming from Dori herself gives the scene a ray of hope but, overall, this ending offers no closure to the story and leaves the reader hanging and craving another 200 pages. Perhaps, given the length of this work, it should be more accurately described as a novella, or an extended short story, and while there are many novels not offering full closure, neither the plot progression nor the tone in the immediate previous vignettes suggests anything closer to an end either. The reader is therefore thoroughly unprepared to finish reading; and as one closes the book and glances at the cover once again, the novel’s title gains an extra sheen of bleakness, leaving us a sense of hollow, unfulfilled promise.
How to cite: Tsang, Michael. “Weirdness Unfulfilled: Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 20 Sept. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/09/20/warm-horizon.
Michael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and is Lecturer in Japanese Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, with previous academic experiences in Newcastle University, the University of Warwick, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His interests lie in East Asian literatures and popular cultures, as well as postcolonial and world literatures at large. He is the co-editor of Murakami Haruki and Our Years of Pilgrimage (Routledge, 2021). He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. In April 2012, Michael joined Cha’s editorial team as Staff Reviewer. He is a founding co-editor of the academic journal, Hong Kong Studies (Chinese University Press). [Cha Profile]