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from the July/August 2020 issue

Fancy a Trip through (Other People’s) Misery? Yun Ko-Eun’s “The Disaster Tourist” Has You Covered

Reviewed by Lily Meyer

Tragedies become great business opportunities in this entertaining, if troubling, novel about a travel agency specializing in touristic excursions to disaster zones.

This is the third installment in WWB's new series Close-Up: An Experiment in Reviewing Translation, in which Lily Meyer and Mona Kareem review translated books with a focus on the translation itself. Read more about the series in this interview with Meyer and Kareem, or have a look at the previous installments in the series: Meyer's review of Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero, and Kareem's review of Minor Detail by Adania Shibli.

The Korean novelist Yun Ko-Eun’s The Disaster Tourist, translated by Lizzie Buehler, packs intense moral reckoning into a slim literary thriller. It is at once a satire of late-stage capitalism gone berserk, an addition to the emergent eco-horror genre—Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy come to mind—and a straightforwardly frightening suspense story. Its creepiness, in other words, knows no bounds.

The Disaster Tourist opens at Jungle, a travel agency that has made a profitable business of “surveying disaster zones and molding them into travel destinations.” Jungle offers “thirty-three distinct categories [of crisis], including volcano eruptions, earthquakes, war, drought, typhoons, and tsunamis, with 152 available packages.” A thirtyish agency representative named Yona helps research and shape those packages. She’s good at her job—“skilled,” as she puts it, “at quantifying the unquantifiable”—and takes great pride in her work, voyeuristic and exploitative though it may be. From the novel’s first pages, Yun makes clear that Yona has no moral engagement whatsoever with her workplace. She is laser-focused on success, with no energy for personal or ethical considerations. When her supervisor, a creep named Kim, begins groping and harassing her, Yona is alarmed not “because her boss was sexually assaulting her [but because] Kim only targeted has-beens.”

Yona tries her best to ignore Kim’s behavior but finds herself increasingly marginalized at Jungle. To prove her worth, she accepts a dubious assignment: to go in secret on a floundering Jungle tour to a desert island called Mui, then report back on whether the company should still offer it. The trip swiftly and radically changes the novel’s power dynamics—including, crucially, the dynamic between Yona and the reader. At Jungle, Yun positions Yona as an object of simultaneous readerly pity and disgust. She is amoral but also abused; at times, she seems almost to suffer from workplace Stockholm syndrome. But on Mui, Yona is powerful. Mui’s economy relies on tourism, and the Jungle tour is one of its main revenue streams. If Yona decides the trip should be canceled, Mui is in trouble.

Yona understands this but seems not to care. Her only concern is properly reporting on the tour’s disappointments, which, from a readerly perspective, are mainly a product of Yona’s inurement to tragedy. The emotional arc of a disaster trip, per Yona, should go through “the following stages: shock → sympathy and compassion, and maybe discomfort → gratefulness for their own lives → a sense of responsibility and a feeling that they’d learned a lesson.” Her inability to get herself to feel even a flicker of shock or sadness while standing at the site of a historic massacre demonstrates how fully working at Jungle has hardened her. Yona has internalized Jungle’s conviction that human life is a commodity. No wonder, then, that when she gets trapped on Mui, she quickly accedes to participating in a disaster-faking scheme that, while it might benefit both tourism on Mui and Yona’s career, will cost hundreds of Mui’s residents their lives.

Yona’s amorality makes her a tough protagonist to inhabit—or, perhaps, a tough mirror to look in. Her failings are far from unique. Her perspective is unsettling precisely because her choices, while cleverly exaggerated and defamiliarized by The Disaster Tourist’s premise, are so common. Capitalism often asks workers to sacrifice their ethics for their jobs; tourism often exacerbates and profits from economic inequality; and observing tragedy from afar, as in the news, often deadens us to it. Yona has, perhaps, a purely capitalist worldview: she relates to herself and others as commodities. Yun deploys this perspective to perform a certain reductio ad absurdum of the phenomena above, demonstrating the inherent brutality of the free-market world as we know it. The result is distressing—but the mounting signs that the fake-disaster scheme is even more sinister than it seems are more than enough to keep readers moving, engaged both with Yona’s moral fate and with Mui’s survival.

Yun is not alone in grounding political critique in a suspenseful plot. Nor is she unusual—especially in the world of thrillers, literary and otherwise—in using a pared-back, low-detail prose style to keep readers hungry for clues. In Buehler’s translation, The Disaster Tourist has a notably flat affect, which both underscores Yona’s ethical and emotional disconnection and amplifies the reader-hunger phenomenon, effectively turning us into sleuths. The littlest descriptive slowdown or spike in emotion can herald an important plot point. It can also serve as a red herring, a device Yun uses sparingly enough to tantalize readers without losing our trust.

It may be worth pausing here to consider the fact that because I know no Korean, my reaction to The Disaster Tourist’s tone is quite different than it might be if I were looking at a novel translated from a language I speak, read, or have close cultural ties to. Tone, like much else, is both cultural and contextual, and my context is incomplete. Though I consciously endeavor to read contemporary Korean literature and am well-versed in the slice of Korean fiction translated into English, that slice is miniature. I don’t have the sample size to intelligently or ethically compare Yun’s tone to her peers’. Instead, I am receiving her writing in the context of the God-knows-how-many English-language novels I have read, which may seem like a fundamental misinterpretation or hazard but is in fact a precondition of reading translation. Contextual shifting is part of the translator’s job. Among Buehler’s obligations to Yun is to ensure that her novel is tonally effective in English, which means ensuring that an Anglophone reader can pick up on the cues and creepinesses that lurk beneath its surface—or, as happens often here, be temporarily tricked when Yun’s tone is at odds with her plot.

Tension between fact and affect is crucial to The Disaster Tourist’s success. Were the novel written or translated with higher drama, it might easily become absurdist, which would erase the chilling effect Jungle has had on Yona. It would also over-signal the plot. Imagine, for instance, the moment in which Yona realizes she is well and truly stranded on Mui: “It had only been a few hours [since she got lost], but it felt like days had passed. Standing at the end of the alley, Yona looked up at the sky. She couldn’t see the sun, and she felt a little nauseous.” Buehler’s word choice here is consciously simple: Yona looks rather than glares, and she feels a little nauseous rather than experiencing roiling nausea or wanting to puke. The syntax here is equally plain: three two-clause sentences, each broken by a comma. Buehler’s chosen sentence structure produces a dulling effect that leeches drama from the situation, deceptively presenting it as an inconvenience rather than the crisis it becomes.

Hiding and minimizing crisis are key strategies in The Disaster Tourist. Jungle’s business would be impossible were its clients and employees not able to shrink tragedies into points of interest; Yona’s continued employment at Jungle would be unbearable were she not to interpret sexual assault as a warped form of performance review. At the novel’s end, Yun suddenly blows every crisis back up to its proper scale—a correct thriller ending, but one that arrives too quickly and costs The Disaster Tourist some nuance. Still, there is immense resonance in its portrait of capitalism run completely amok. At one point, Yona has a small breakthrough in understanding, occasioned by the belief that “her life was worth more than three hundred dollars.” Would that she understood that Mui’s inhabitants’ lives are, too.

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