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Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 04/21/24 5:27 AM

Book review: Your Utopia by Bora Chung

They walk amongst us

Bora Chung`s Cursed Bunny was shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize. In this new offering by the accomplisher author, titled Your Utopia and immaculately translated by Anton Hur, we meet  a host of characters, some human, some decidedly not, all imbued with strong streaks of strangeness.

One hesitates to categorise this collection of shorts as pure science fiction; there is a wry cocking of the snook at human laws and constructs, there is telling of corporate monopolies, land grabs, ecological missteps, the misuse of advanced technology, of love, loss, anger, dismay. If dystopia seems to be the central theme, an ironical touch given that the title has the opposite word `utopia` in it, it is a dystopia that though woven through with surreal elements, is relatable to us. Though decidedly weird,  nothing is really absurd. This is basically speculative fiction at its most creative, imaginative. Every robot is so human displaying compassion and curiosity.

And yet, that element of strangeness persists. We meet people working at the Center for Immortality Research, with most of the senior staff displaying very mortal pettiness. We watch as people get suddenly and startlingly infected with cannibalism. We root (pardon that unwitting pun) for a species of plant-human hybrids as they try to save their patch of land from what else, but humans. We are moved when an AI-enabled elevator develops a fondness for a woman suffering from the onset of Parkinson`s. We recoil in horror as a suspicious husband gets more than he bargained for, when he tries to keep track of his wife`s movements. We look on as Korea`s conservative society heaps harassment and condemnation on its LGBTQ+ people. We observe a dream- catcher at work on a drug mafia queen`s dreams.

Quite like the curate`s egg, some of the tales are moving, disturbing, sweetly sentimental and stay with the reader for a while after they are done reading. Yet others seem to move at a very slow pace or follow a convoluted plot. After the second story in this collection, the reader comes to expect the twist in the tale, and starts to second guess the story, starts to look for that twist with enjoyable anticipation. The reader also begins to speculate if some of the strangeness is an  allegory for our current way of life. Like all of civilization trying to eat each other. Like, the purest form of communication is one-sided infodumps. Like, if the world I was designed for has changed so much, in what way must I myself change?

The translation is so flawless, something of the inherent Korean-ness in some of the stories kind of gets lost in the process. However, viewed as global stories, this lot jumps over  that stile with flying colours. And this reviewer quite appreciated the fact that several Korean words appear without italics, and without  a glossary at the end of the book either; the curious will need to go look up those words.

The Afterword is interesting in that Chung tells us of her activism, of taking part in ritual prostration protests, and revealing an innate sadness interlaced with cynicism about any real progress made on these fronts.

Ultimately, Bora Chung points out the fate that lies in wait for the  rapacious, relentless, looting collective known as humanity.

 Your Utopia By Bora Chung. Translated by Anton Hur. Hachette Books. Rs 599.239 pages.

This ran in The Hindu`s Literary Review of 21 April 2024.

books book reviewBora ChungHachette Booksscience fictiontranslated by Anton HurYour Utopia

Sheila Kumar • April 21, 2024

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