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from the February 2015 issue

Park Min-gyu’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess”

Reviewed by Carla Baricz

Michel Foucault begins Les mots et les choses—his study of how the West has framed and constituted knowledge from the early modern period to the present day—with a discussion of Diego Velásquez’s famous painting Las Meninas. Foucault’s meticulous, articulate description of the painting’s self-reflexive take on the uncertain relationship between subject and object, and between reality and visual representation, builds its argument around a fundamental observation: “The entire picture is looking out at a scene for which it is itself a scene.” The same might be said of Park Min-gyu’s novel Pavane for a Dead Princess, which frequently mentions both Velásquez’s painting and Maurice Ravel’s piece, from which the book takes its name and which Ravel wrote at the turn of the twentieth century in homage to Gabriel Fauré's Pavane, originally titled Las Meninas. Like George Orwell’s 1984, Upton Sinclair’s Jungle, or John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Pavane is a novel of social protest that looks out at our twenty-first-century global, consumerist culture—its obsession with wealth, privilege, and beauty—and critiques it by making it the scene of its narrative. To use Foucault’s terms, like Las Meninas, Pavane allows us to “observ[e] ourselves being observed by the painter and made visible to his eyes by the same light that enables us to see him.” More specifically, Park’s protest narrative becomes legible to readers who have an understanding of—and recognize themselves as being part of—the global-capitalist society he so fervently rejects.

Pavane follows the lives of three young adults growing up in South Korea in the late 1980s. The protagonist, a handsome adolescent layabout struggling to find his place in the world, takes a job as a parking-lot attendant at a shopping mall in downtown Seoul. On his first day on the job, he befriends his supervisor, the brilliant, misunderstood, erudite Yohan, who becomes his best friend and the novel’s star character—the only character whom the novel names, in fact. He also encounters a worker assigned to merchandise shipment and distribution. The latter, a shy and lonely girl who has been ostracized by her peers, mesmerizes him: “I stood there in that office stunned, transfixed by her. I had seen quite a few unattractive girls, but I’d never seen a woman this ugly before. Just as the world’s most beautiful woman, the world’s ugliest woman is no less powerful in completely disarming a man.” Predictably, the narrator falls in love with the smart, cultured, reclusive “she,” and after a few awkward encounters, he manages to ask her out with Yohan’s help.

The novel carefully delineates the slow and painful unwinding of this relationship, all the while compelling the characters (and readers) to ask themselves why the couple seems like such an implausible pair. After all, both characters are nineteen, both live alone, both seem to share similar interests, and both like each other. One might of course argue that by focusing on the exterior pressures that the couple faces—pressures mainly resulting from their peers’ rejection of “she”—the novelist is simply underscoring the age-old truism that beauty is only skin-deep. Park’s own answer, however, seems to be simpler and more complex.

Like other novels of social protest, Pavane uses its characters as a way of making a point about the world in which its readers live. Formally, the couple is doomed because their relationship is meant to illustrate some of the excruciating demands made by the society of which they are part. As Park sees it, our consumerist, beauty-obsessed, flashy society recognizes wealth and beauty as two sides of a single coin: “‘It wasn’t that I didn’t like pretty girls,'" the narrator muses. ‘I was uncomfortable with how generous the world was to them. It wasn’t any different from the generosity that the world afforded to rich people.'” Hence, for Park, to critique the cult of beauty is to offer a critique of the increasingly globalized ruling class that promotes it as a standard: “Capitalism always needs a hero. It needs a Pied Piper who can rally the others into leading better lives. Capitalism always has a star fronting it. It needs a Pied Piper exhorting everyone to pretty themselves up.” Park has his narrator become attracted to (even obsessed with) “she”'s “ugliness” as a way of revolting against the capitalist model that uses physical beauty as a form of currency. Unfortunately, he also dooms the couple’s relationship by making it an example of a certain ideal. His desire to educate the reader and warn him or her of the dangers of being taken in by beauty and wealth turns him into a similar Pied Piper who wants to “rally the others into leading better lives.”

On a first reading of this intellectually engaging but ultimately puzzling novel one might think that statements such as this are merely records of a character’s thoughts, opinions that the author does not necessarily share. Nevertheless, the network of relationships that make up Pavane seems to suggest otherwise. Indeed, many of the relationships depicted in the book can be explained by the Hegelian master-slave dialectic that Marx would eventually borrow in order to talk about the class struggle.

Park seems to want to argue that there are two classes of individuals in the global capitalist society in which we live: slaves and masters. The first class is made up of “amigos” and “gals,” words that to Yohan “seem to describe people of the proletariat class in general.” These are the “rats” who are “bound” to a system of production and consumption that is run by the Pied Pipers of the second class of individuals. Park quotes Robert Browning’s poem, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” to make his point: “Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats / […] / Followed the Piper for their lives…”

The novel’s “she” belongs to the first class. “She” is from an extraordinarily poor family, and her poverty is symbolized by her ugliness. No matter how qualified, “she” cannot find a better job because of her looks. And because of her poverty, “she” cannot improve them or have them overlooked: “‘Come on. There’s ugly, and then there’s too ugly,’ I heard the interviewer drawling from the other line.” On the other hand, the protagonist is handsome. He has inherited his movie star father’s looks. He seems to have no need to work. He takes the part-time job at the mall more out of a feeling of “listlessness” and a desire to escape “the days filled with pointless questions,” rather than for the stable income such employment might provide.

In a plot twist worthy of Freud, this beautiful man chooses the ugly “she” both to expunge his father’s mistakes and to avenge his mother, even if only symbolically. Though “I” appears to be unaware of the parallels between his choice of romantic partner and his father’s, he nevertheless attempts to make up for his father’s callousness toward his wife by falling for a woman who is “pitied” by acquaintances and friends, just like his mother was: “The sight of her [my mother] standing side by side with my dad inspired a strange kind of pity in people. Here was this handsome man who was set on becoming an actor and next to him was this poor, lost woman who was rather plain looking, to put it kindly.” Nevertheless, having at last repudiated the world in which “pretty trump[s] justice and pretty ha[s] the last word,” he ironically finds himself growing emotionally and intellectually dependent on “she,” much as his father had become financially dependent on his mother. Indeed, “I” cannot do without the things that “she” provides him with: “Maurice Ravel and Bob Dylan and ‘Michelle’ and cactus flowers, and Dustin Hoffman.” However, history does not wholly repeat itself: “I”'s father eventually left his mother for a younger, much prettier woman, but in this case it is “she” who leaves, breaking up with “I” and affirming her self-sufficiency. Eventually, this forces “I” to realize that he cannot live without her: “Everything seemed trivial. I stopped going to class. I didn’t write my papers. Instead, I listened to [Schubert’s] Winter Journey over and over again.”

In the schema Hegel outlines in his Phenomenology of Spirit, though the masters might dictate the lives of the slaves, the masters’ ability to become “self-conscious” depends to a large degree on their slaves’ recognition of them. Thus, one might say that the protagonist needs “she” in order to become conscious of being an “I.” In fact, “I” can only become self-conscious by seeing himself from “she”'s perspective. Yohan, the most clear-headed and articulate character in the novel, a stand-in for Park himself, rephrases this dilemma in more sentimental terms:

“I learned that a person’s soul is like a piece of filament inside a light bulb. […] Humans are all basically electric cords with a single charge running through them. And when two people meet, they light up each other’s soul. […] They don’t know that it’s they themselves who provide the light, who light up each other.”

For Yohan, the precondition of beauty, like that of self-consciousness, is a relationship with another who lights one up from within. For Park, an ideal relationship of this kind would be one between equals, which would result in a dialectic of “love.” However, the plot of Pavane for a Dead Princess makes clear that a balanced relationship of this nature is an exception.

Without giving too much else away, the death announced in the novel’s title prevents Pavane’s protagonist from finally achieving the kind of self-knowledge that could have been made possible by his relationship with “she.” “I” never fully comes to terms with his father’s abandonment of his mother, or with his mother’s newfound independence. He never decides what he would like to do with his life—whether he should continue to write, or attempt to finish his college degree, or simply get a job. He never sees himself “dazzlingly luminescent,” lit up by “she”'s love.

Park, however, does provide another more successful example of a Hegelian dialectic. Though a self-affirmed “slave,” through his writing (his labor), Yohan begins to understand himself and his place in the world. In Hegel’s terms, Yohan achieves self-consciousness, while the society of masters he despises becomes dependent on products that exalt both a certain type of aesthetic beauty—Western art and music, like Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte and Velásquez’s Las Meninas—and pop culture, like the Beatles and Pink Floyd, as well as love stories with deceptively romantic endings. In other words, cultural projects like the novel he eventually publishes. 

Pavane for a Dead Princess (2009) is Park Min-gyu’s fourth novel, after Legend of the World’s Superheroes (2003), The Sammi Superstars’ Last Fan Club (2003), and Ping Pong (2006). Like many of Park’s other works, this complex novel of ideas, translated with such dexterity and aplomb by Amber Hyun Jung Kim, alternates between poignancy and flippancy, between scenes that seem to recall the sublime lyricism of Yasunari Kawabata and lines that could have been taken out of a rom-com screenplay. Sometimes, the book reads like a Platonic dialogue in which characters speak merely to voice ideological viewpoints. At other times, Park’s breathtaking metaphors imbue his writing with astonishing eloquence.

If Pavane’s message of protest is difficult to understand, perhaps it is because it offers no easy answers. It places us, as readers, in an uneasy position—that of consumers of pop literature and followers of the Piper—while simultaneously chiding us for wanting the happy ending the novel works so hard to construct. The startling revelation near the book’s end could be viewed as a reprimand. Nor does the novel guarantee that its characters’ lives (or our lives) will improve as a result of trading an appreciation of superficial, skin-deep beauty for an educated appreciation of aesthetic beauty. After all, the models of aesthetic beauty that it provides all involve the same capitalist system of exchange: the Western canon of literature, music, and art that is only accessible to those who have the money to buy records, books, and museum entrance tickets, to those who can afford to vacation in the Alps or subscribe to art magazines like “I” does. This is the same group of people whom the novel has been calling “masters” all along. In the end, “I,” “she,” and Yohan’s privileging of Western cultural values raises more questions than it answers. Who determines what we consider aesthetically pleasing? In fetishizing Western culture, hasn’t the novel simply reinforced one of the effects of globalization in South Korea? Finally, are these cultural tastes not part of the “one percent”'s system of values that Pavane for a Dead Princess so ardently disavows? This deceptively forthright novel both refuses and invites such questions.

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