Paul Yoon’s “Snow Hunters” is a novel in which little happens – not, in many ways, unlike life. This is not meant as criticism: Some of the fiction that moves me most is that with the least overt action, in which the interior rather than the exterior is at stake.
That’s the case here too, as Yoon explores the experiences of a man named Yohan, a North Korean who defects in the 1950s, after the Korean War. Moving back and forth between Yohan’s adjustment to living in a Brazilian coastal town and his memories of childhood as well as of a period spent as a prisoner in an American hospital camp, it is a lovely novel, subtly rendered, operating “as though someone, somewhere, were dreaming this and he had crossed into it without permission. Everything both familiar and foreign.”
Yoon wrote one previous book, “Once the Shore,” a loosely linked collection of short fiction that takes place on an island off Korea. Stretching across half a century, the eight stories offer a series of meditations on time, loss and identity, as well as the interplay between the individual and the culture of which he or she is a part.
In some sense, “Snow Hunters” feels like a follow-up, as if Yoon had expanded on one of his earlier pieces. “A single place,” he observes. “One house. One piece of land. All the changes. All the lives it once held, however briefly.” At the same time, he is doing something different in this new book, taking a vertical plunge into the heart of a character who cannot quite articulate the depth of all he is feeling, who exists in a territory of solitude, of silence, even as he tries to make connections, to reach beyond himself.
In part, this is a function of language, for Yohan does not speak Portuguese when he arrives in Brazil. The closest he comes to a confidant is Kiyoshi, the Japanese tailor who sponsors him and with whom he moves in as an apprentice and eventually a friend. Even so, it is a quiet sort of friendship, as Yoon makes clear from the start.
“Though they were together often,” he tells us, “ 1 / 8Kiyoshi 3 / 8 shared little with Yohan. And he himself did not tell the tailor about his own years. And yet he found comfort in this absence of telling.”
The point is that we communicate in all sorts of ways, that sometimes just the simple act of being, or of watching, will suffice. “He learned about the tailor,” Yoon continues, “by what the old man pointed to, what his eyes fell on; by what he ate and how; by his knowledge of fabrics and by the way he avoided certain pedestrians and grinned at others. … From their reticence grew a kind of intimacy.”
Yoon is describing a form of compression, the way a life gets boiled down to its essential parts. He mirrors this with the compression of his storytelling, by which in sticking to the surfaces, he manages to illuminate the depths.
Because he cannot communicate, Yohan remembers: He sorts the past as if his memories were bits and pieces of the fabric that he stitches in the tailor’s shop. He recalls his friend Peng, blinded by a bomb blast in the last days of the war, and the way he had to let him go. He thinks about his father, a farmer who throws pots and vases in his spare time; even after the older man’s death, Yohan imagines that something of his essence lingers in these creations, “that somewhere underneath the glaze and the paint there remained his father’s hands.”
This becomes a vivid metaphor, both for Yohan’s elusive journey and for Yoon’s deft evocation, in which the years blur, one into another, with a sort of relentless grace. “In this way,” he suggests, “the days passed. Those days become years. Those years a life. In the evening he climbed the old stairs into his room. Standing by the window, he pressed a cold washcloth against his neck. A fan spun. He listened to music coming from the nightclub. An airplane. The voice of the woman across the street.”
What Yoon is saying is that such moments are the most we can hope for – and that, even more, they are enough. Over the decades, Yohan finds his place; he learns the language, befriends Peixe, the church groundskeeper, and two orphaned children who come and go like ghosts. He grows into himself, into his life story, a life not so different than anyone else’s, and yet utterly unique. “He thought of these years as another life within the one he had,” Yoon writes. “As though it were a thing he was able to carry. A small box. A handkerchief. A stone.”