Once the Shore
Paul Yoon sets the lyrically realist stories collected in Once the Shore in Solla, a reimagined version of the island of Cheju. Cheju is a volcanic island some sixty miles south of the Korean mainland. Approximately forty miles long and twenty miles wide, it is a place where, as one of Yoon’s characters says, it takes no longer than an hour to get from “here to anywhere.” Once a mysterious place of banishment for political dissidents, the island has become a favorite destination for honeymoon couples and tourists, and it is famous for the sea women who dive for shellfish off its shore. Yoon has appropriated Cheju, renamed it Solla, and created a fictional world reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
Yoon’s Solla is a world of loneliness and loss. In interviews, the author has said that, although a sense of place is very important to him, when he had finished Once the Shore he realized that he had changed everything about the islandgeography, events, and historyand that the stories were not about Cheju at all. Yoon says that he was most interested in exploring the effect of outside forces invading an isolated environment and changing people’s lives. The collection thus follows the island’s transformation in the years between the military occupation after World War II and its present-day reincarnation as a visa-free tourist destination.
However, historical change and cultural upheaval are not what these stories are about. In spite of the important time span it encompasses, this is not primarily a social document, nor a “story cycle” parading as a sociorealist “composite novel.” Rather, it is a collection of self-sufficient, independent stories about individual lonely lives in the lyrical realist tradition of Russian writer Ivan Turgenev.
The title story, Yoon’s first published work, was chosen for the 2006 Best American Short Stories. It transfers the 2001 Ehime Maru incident, in which a Japanese fishery school’s training vessel was sunk by the U.S. nuclear submarine USS Greeneville, killing nine Japanese fishers, from the coast of Hawaii to the coast of Korea. Changing the drowned Japanese to Korean fishers, Yoon tells the story of a twenty-six-year old waiter at one of the island’s resort hotels whose brother is killed in the accident.
Parallel to the waiter’s experience of loss is the story of an American widow in her sixties visiting the resort. Her husband has been dead only a few months, and she tells the waiter the story of how, while stationed in the South Pacific during the war, her husband came to the island on a furlough and carved a heart with their initials in a cave there. Although she has gradually realized that her husband had lied about this incident, she wants to locate the cave to somehow find the husband who left her to go to war but never really returned the same man.
Also seeking some reconciliation, the waiter is looking for the mythical center of the ocean that his brother once told him they could find together. When he takes the woman to the caves, he thinks it is possible that this island, his home, is the center of the ocean. After serving her a special communal meal, he takes her into a cave where, with a sharp stone, she begins carving on the wall a design that he thinks could be the words of a language “long forgotten.” Told in a restrained and lyrical fashion that is both mythic and realist at once, “Once the Shore” evokes a sense of loss and final poetic reconciliation that constitutes is a typical pattern for Yoon’s stories.
In “Among the Wreckage,” another story about a tragic accident involving the United States, an aging Korean couple lose their forty-year-old fisherman son when American planes drop test bombs on uninhabited islands just after the end of the war. The old couple set out to search for him on a dilapidated trawler that the father and son once reclaimed and painted. After a cruel encounter with an American patrol boat, they reach the site where their son’s boat was destroyed and begin the gruesome task of looking through the debris and human limbs. Casting themselves off from the trawler on a small piece of wood the size of a door, they pull floating bodies closer, lifting their faces out of the water looking for their son. Once again, Yoon’s language is reserved and controlled as he recounts the tension between the old man and woman that separates them and the horrible quest that unites them.
Four of Yoon’s stories focus on women who have passively grown older on the island and who encounter and become involved with visiting men and lonely boys. Some are people the women have previously lost and try to recover; some are forbidden to them by age or...
(The entire section is 1954 words.)