A North Korean refugee starts a new life in Brazil but can’t escape his past.
Paul Yoon’s debut novel, “Snow Hunters,” is a trim, fable-like book that proves to have a surprising amount of heft. Though its plot is skeletal and ageless — a refugee builds a new life in a new place — it weaves in decades of psychic and physical conflict. It has the afterglow of a war epic — Yoon’s first draft was reportedly 500 pages — but it moves elegantly, and with speed.
The story’s hero, Yohan, is a North Korean man who arrives in Brazil in 1954, released from a prison camp after the Korean War. He’s delivered to a coastal town to apprentice with a tailor, and almost immediately the novel becomes a Matryoshka doll of displacement — a North Korean in a Japanese enclave in South America. Upended as he is, Yohan is understandably careful about discussing his past: “He himself did not tell the tailor about his own years. And yet he found comfort in this absence of telling.”
Yoon works plenty of Yohan’s years into the story, though, tracking him through a decade in Brazil and backward into his adolescence. In time, we learn that he was raised on a farm and later conscripted into the army, becoming part of war’s dehumanizing anonymity: “His face had been like all the faces, worn and unrecognizable. His eyes like all their eyes.” As he recalls the agony of a blinded friend and fellow soldier, Yohan’s urge to put the past away and craft a new identity becomes clearer and more potent.
Yoon is a lyrical writer, weaving taut and simple sentences with expanded and rhythmic ones. Every line is engineered to matter in a book like this one, so the clunkier, more precious ones stick out. (“[Yohan] thought of how whatever fire his father had within him he had kept.”) But Yoon’s tight focus is effective. Yohan’s adoptive hometown needs more tailoring work than seems reasonable, but his precision work neatly symbolizes his own emotional rehabilitation. Similarly, the “snow hunters” — scavengers — he spotted during the war evoke the present-day emotional scavenging he’s doing himself.
The novel’s (relatively modest) drama turns on Yohan befriending a boy and girl, and the role he plays in each of their lives over the course of a decade. When Yohan is forced to subdue the boy in a violent moment, Yoon finds a tart yet poetic way of showing the man’s resurgent muscle: “A forgotten stone turned within him.” That kind of a balance is the hallmark of this book. Yoon is expert at zooming in on the transformative moment and pulling back to capture the flow of history. The novel encapsulates, as Yohan puts it, “how completely time could abandon someone. How far it could leap.”
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Washington, D.C.