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Simon Winchester: Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles

Los Angeles’ Korean Cultural Center put on a quiz on Korea, and I picked this book up ostensibly as study material. Frankly, though, I’ve wanted to read it for years. The tradition of the traveling English writer — as distinct from the English travel writer — draws me in without fail, although I tend to go for those still living with consciousnesses shaped by a fallen empire, rather than the dead who freely roamed a thriving one. The British-born, English- and Californian-raised, and Indian heritage’d (Marketplace of Ideas and Notebook on Cities and Culture guest) Pico Iyer has become my key reference point there. Though technically Swiss, the English-in-tone-and-manner (Marketplace of Ideas guest) Alain de Botton performs the sort of philosophical explorations that take him all over the place, whether he likes it or not. Then we have (Marketplace of Ideas guest) Clive James, the Australian who, while more of a critic than a writer of place, writes essays underlain by a similarly extensive internationalism. Though he recently took U.S. citizenship, I suspect Simon Winchester may fit somewhere within this triangle. If a book takes him to a country that not only fascinates me but whose culture has, with astonishing speed, become an important part of my life, count me aboard.

Why is Simon Winchester so popular?” Nathan Heller asked in Slate, accusing him of writing in a breezy, no-questions-askable style that leads readers into lazy “historical tourism.” Though he periodically goes to the history shelves to provide context in Korea, Winchester mainly writes the book as a straight travelogue of his walking journey as far across the titular peninsula as politics allows. In the late eighties, when the main text takes place, he gets right up to the Demilitarized Zone that separates South from North, but steps no farther. (A dingy limousine and a pair of black-suited agents await him on the other side; a loudspeaker blares hastily whipped-up propaganda about the solitary westerner who, too poor to buy a car, has walked all the way to the Democratic People’s Republic in search of a better life.) The second edition offers a new introduction where Winchester recounts his later trip past the 38th parallel, goaded on by some Irish priest who needled him about his “half complete” journey. Here you’ll find the book’s most harrowing moment, when at the Pyongyang airport café he drinks what you might call a cargo cult cappuccino: “The foam on top turned out to be egg white, beaten and cooked into a sort of greyish omelette.”

I live for lines like that, as I live for paragraphs like this:

Korean women, I am bound to think, present a most bewildering and complicated mixture of emotions and attitudes. One woman can at the same moment be delightfully shy and yet alarmingly forward, liberated and yet coquettishly deferential, sexually ignorant and yet wantonly promiscuous, aggressive and argumentative and yet strangely sulky and passive. So very different from the Japanese — so friendly, so curious, so studiously attentive. The baser side of me would often think that for stimulation and curiosity value alone there could probably be no greater woman than the Korean, but life could at the same time perhaps be pretty hellish, I have no doubt.

Ah, the soothing feeling of meeting someone, even in text, almost as unreconstructed as oneself. Winchester mentions narrowly avoiding encounters with an dutiful prostitute or four — purely disease-related concerns, he insists — but either never beds down with a woman of this Land of Miracles or shies away from mentioning having done so. Without knowing Winchester, I put my money on the latter. “Travellers almost by definition screw more (or want to screw more) than other people,” I remember Donald Richie writing in his Japan Journals, and even that book alludes to more of that than it describes (though I hear much description remains in his unpublished Vita Sexualis). No traveling writer wants to come off like a sex tourist, but the apparent omission, as if he hadn’t mentioned eating any food the whole time, unsteadies me as a reader. Talk about a half complete journey.

It seems the title alludes primarily to industrial miracles. In an elegiac opening chapter, Winchester, a onetime resident of Newcastle upon Tyne, tells of witnessing the death throes of British shipbuilding. He later travels to Korea to size up its suspected murderer: the unfathomably large, futuristically equipped, and unrelentingly efficient shipyards operated by Hyundai. “You know,” remarks a Swedish shipowner come to inspect his order, “I think that Europe is quite finished.” Having lately read a great many books on Asia written by westerners in the seventies and eighties, I can assure you that such nervous resignation in the face of apparent discipline and hyperproductivity came with the zeitgeist. Usually the terror emanates from that mercilessly buzzing economic hive known as Japan, Korea’s image as whose poor, undistinguished country cousin Winchester attempts to counterbalance. At thrift stores, I still see barrels full of dollar hardbacks warning of America’s imminent (or accomplished) reduction to a commercial colony of the Rising Sun. You may want to hold off on reading all those China pundits.

Certainly it counts as some sort of Miracle that Winchester could walk all the way across Jeju island, then all the way across South Korea, without dying of bunions or something. I have no doubt that the country offers all the amenities needed to accomplish this, like comfortable small towns and a helpful, outgoing populace. The book itself proves that, and such a trip has probably gotten even easier over the past 25 years. I just can’t imagine walking across any American state, let alone my entire country, without things going terribly awry. The vast United States grew so wealthy so early, and has stayed wealthy so long, that it seems to have paradoxically avoided building much of an apparatus for the curious visitor, let alone the curious pedestrian visitor. Maybe I’ve simply fallen victim to the allure of the foreign, but every city in which Winchester spends the night — even the allegedly unremarkable hamlets he all but skips over — strikes me as well worth exploration. I myself just made a Korean friend from Bucheon, known as “the cultural centre of the Seoul Metropolitan Area.” Bucheon’s official sister city is Bakersfield.

(Having now taken that quiz on Korea, I realize I should have spent the time I spent reading this book memorizing the assigned semi-propagandistic pamphlet. But I regret nothing.)

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