Reading in Translation

Wandering Words: Jung Young Moon’s Vaseline Buddha, Translated by Yewon Jung

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Review by Kalau Almony

Jung Young Moon’s Vaseline Buddha, translated by Yewon Jung, is a strange and wonderful novel. First and foremost, it is a page-turner, but in a way entirely different from what the phrase “page-turner” usually evokes. It is not a tightly plotted novel. In fact, attempting to map out the bits of plot scattered through the text would be almost impossible—all you’d wind up with is a list of events, many of which could not even be put in chronological order because they lack grounding in place or time. Such a list of the “events” of the novel would also exclude all the amazing digressions about language and animals and chairs that can’t really be considered part of the plot. Yet this book keeps you asking, “What’s next?” and page after page, you’ll find yourself smiling, if not laughing out loud, at the comic absurdity that occupies the narrator’s mind and writing.

In lieu of a plot, the unnamed narrator’s tense but playful relation with language drives the story. The narrator is himself a writer and translator, and on one level, this is a book about writing a book. It begins with the narrator mentioning a vague desire to write a story, before being distracted by a man, maybe a robber, who may be trying to break into his house. This is the first of many distractions from narrating the act of writing. Writing resurfaces again and again throughout the story, but never in a way that dominates the narrative. Something else always appears, like a robber from the night, diverting the flow of text in another direction.

Far more space is dedicated to meandering away from writing than discussion of the process of writing itself. The narrator rests in a sort of fraught complicity with language. While he recognizes language as only an imperfect tool, something that can never fully express what he wants, he’s still practically addicted to trying. He can’t help putting words on paper, though he knows, at best, he’s just struggling to approximate what he really wants to say. He is not the all-knowing writer, that great artist who can control language and thus, the story (although, the author’s voice is also allowed to sneak into the text, and is immediately called out whenever it does). The narrator mentions (in one of his many parenthetical digressions within digressions) that he’s writing “a story about the process of writing a story,” and it is exactly at this point it also becomes a story about travel, a story about everyday life, and a story about death, a story of the “overlapping mixture of these things” and the linking of “separate images into successive images” (26). For our narrator, to write a story is to open up a space where disparate objects collide, leading to unforeseen connections. For him, “a writer must be someone who also dreams the somewhat strange but captivating dreams that language dreams” (32).

This obsession with language makes every moment of the text suspect. “Did this actually happen?” you’ll surely find yourself asking. And, “Even if it did, why is he telling me about it like this?” Why would the narrator doubt that this man climbing up a gas pipe to his window is a robber? Why does he think this man is a thief instead? What’s the difference, and why does it matter, and why is he fretting over semantics when someone’s climbing up the side of his house and trying to open his window? But it is the attention paid to the incongruity between words and presumed reality that propels the reader on, dragging him to the end of each episode (which could last one paragraph or several pages) to try to figure out what’s really happening. And oddly enough, though the reality of every instant seems suspicious because of the narrator’s unusual presentation of events, the narration brings with it a strange verisimilitude of thought that anyone who’s stayed up late watching cats and other shadowy street animals prowl in the distance will surely relate to.

Even the animals which flood the text have an odd relation to language. They are imbued with a sense of intention, but must find their own bizarre and unique ways to express themselves, their own languages. In a long hypothetical passage wherein the narrator describes a man suddenly caught up in the mysteriousness of the banal things around him, he imagines that this man

could think of animals that do astonishing things humans can’t understand, of which he knew quite a few, such as a cow that chewed and swallowed chickens whole, a water buffalo whose hobby it was to blow gusts of air into plastic bags, a badger that was found lying unconscious in the middle of a road, dead drunk after eating cherries that were ripe to the point of fermentation, and a parrot with a wounded heart that stayed with its head stuck between watermelons in a fruit shop, and think that perhaps by doing such things, they were, with joy and fury and despair, expressing in a difficult way the difficulty, and the joy and fury and despair, of living their daily lives as animals. (66)

Animals (and this is a very tiny sample of the animals in the text, which range from dogs and cats and goldfish to more exotic fare, such as the chameleons of Madagascar), represent something “transcendental” to the narrator. They are symbols of “a world somewhere between the descent and ascent where you couldn’t stay, but could at least go in and out of” (177). And while I may be on the verge of attempting a serious argument here, or seeming to wax philosophical (attempting serious argument and seeming to wax philosophical are also things which the narrator loves to do), what I really want to say is that these passages about animals are absolutely hysterical! Whether it’s the narrator’s tale of a masturbating monkey he once saw on a tropical island, or his hunch that sheep plan to fart and burp humans out of existence, animals provide an outlet for the narrator to both entertain and present some of his deeper ideas about being and language.

While reading Vaseline Buddha, my more serious side often found itself looking for a contradiction between philosophical contemplation and side-splitting hilarity, but I could never find it. As with writers like Becket and Kafka, whom Jung Young Moon clearly admires deeply, it is the absurd and the bizarre that open up the space to think through the most difficult of problems, such as the relation between language and self. If language is a game for him, it’s because only a game can offer the infinite possibilities of permutation and combination that allow for this sort of thinking. The true tension seems to rest not between the thoughtful and the ridiculous, but rather between grammar—that limiting factor of language—and thinkability. Within an especially long paragraph, made up of very long sentences, the narrator contemplates “a technical way of making long sentences in my native language, which had no relative pronouns, which made making long sentences difficult” (55). The questions hidden in here seem to be: How does our grammar limit our ability to think, or, at least, to represent our thoughts? And, how can we get past that? Something similar is at work when the narrator claims he wants to talk about “something that’s nothing, or things you can’t talk about.” While most things are “difficult to talk about, you can talk at least about the ways in which you can’t talk about them, and how inexpressible they are, or how inexpressibly expressible they are, in which, perhaps, lies the ultimate something of speaking” (16).

These twisting, contorted sentences are themselves an impressive feat of language, and it is in their presence that I most appreciate the careful work Yewon Jung put into this translation. She captures so well the strained syntax of passages that can’t simply be skimmed over and forgotten, lost forever in the sea of ordinary sentences we swim through every day. Take, for example, a particularly gymnastic passage:

Amusing ideas and games of ideas. Games using ideas, and languages, which are carriers of ideas. A story that’s a puzzling game, a game that becomes puzzling. Games using words, just for fun, not just for fun, not necessarily for fun, for fun only, not just for fun only, simply for fun, in the spirit of fun, as if for fun, not possibly for fun, and in the end, for fun only. (Games using words are really the only games you can enjoy until you get tired of them, or enjoy forever without getting tired of them.) (29)

While all translation is difficult work, trying to capture the sense of a paragraph like this that rests at the very edge of logic offers a unique challenge. Yewon Jung must be commended for keeping a gentle touch, and maintaining a playful cadence even in the face of such warped passages, which read like part Zen kōan and part drunken rambling. The narrator always seems serious, but you can never tell just how serious he’s being. He comes off like the sort of person you might wind up talking to in a bar, the kind of guy who has an endless supply of interesting stories of questionable veracity that he’s willing to tell as long as someone’s listening.

Vaseline Buddha is also a sort of travelogue, but again, not in the usual sense. Certainly, the narrator does travel quite a bit, but the object of his narration is hardly a straight path from one place to another, or the usual touristic search for something authentically different. Rather, it’s a state of being lost somewhere, of wandering aimlessly—a state which the narrator also equates with the everyday. Vaseline Buddha is a

travelogue that contains casual yet cold ridicule on the many travelogues that praise and encourage traveling, and thus is for people who don’t like to travel, and it could be a story that could give some kind of a hint, although it wouldn’t serve as a good guide, on what to do when you don’t know what to do when you’re traveling, just as you didn’t know what to do when you weren’t traveling (26-7)

Traveling here must not be understood in a purely physical sense. Reading and writing themselves are both forms of travel and wandering. The narrator variously imagines himself getting lost in his own story; contemplates ways to willfully get lost in his story; and, later, finds himself unwittingly lost in the story he’s written. Language, like space, becomes another medium to traverse, sometimes even taking precedence over space. When the narrator travels to Amsterdam, he spends most of his time there sitting

in a café from which I could see the canal, writing down words such as stained stain, sleeping sleep, dreaming dream, drained drain, and smiling smile. And the words became the phrase, a smiling smile that arises on a drained drain of a stained stain in a dream dreamt by sleeping sleep, upon whose completion I left the Netherlands. (132)

A whole trip culminates not in an experience of a locality, but a turn of phrase. It is, as he says, not an attempt to escape the everyday, but a headlong sprint into the everydayness of sitting in a café somewhere, playing with language, putting together just another sentence, another page of his text.

Vaseline Buddha is not your everyday narrative, but if you, like the narrator of this intriguing story, are “a strange person who’s pleased by strange things” you will undoubtedly love this work (144). Even if you consider yourself absolutely ordinary, it might be worth taking a romp through this text. For, as the narrator claims:

Perhaps one of the greatest misfortunes in the modern times is that the great spiritual human act of wandering has virtually disappeared, and wandering in the true sense is no longer possible. Now, travel is nothing more than an escape from everyday life, which is nothing more than an illusion. And travel is merely an expansion, as well as extension, of everyday life, not really an escape from everyday life (225)

I don’t know if Vaseline Buddha can offer anyone a total escape from everyday life, but at the very least, it offers a few vague suggestions about which way to head. It’s a powerful reminder that being lost isn’t always a bad thing, as long as you savor the uniqueness of the journey.

Jung, Young Moon. Vaseline Buddha. Translated by Yewon Jung. Dallas: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2016.

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