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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Pavane for a Dead Princess

Park Min-gyu

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To purchase Pavane for a Dead Princess

Title: Pavane for a Dead Princess
Author: Park Min-gyu
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 262 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: Pavane for a Dead Princess - US
Pavane for a Dead Princess - UK
Pavane for a Dead Princess - Canada
Pavane for a Dead Princess - India
  • Korean title: 죽은 왕녀를 위한 파반느
  • Translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim

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Our Assessment:

B+ : artful spin -- especially in its presentation -- on a love story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Harper's . 10/2014 Joshua Cohen

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The complete review's Review:

       Pavane for a Dead Princess is basically a love story, but Park Min-gyu layers considerably more onto that. Much of the action takes place in the mid-1980s, during a time of rapid transformation -- social and political -- in South Korea; as the narrator notes: "1985 was a year when many things happened", and this tale, if not typical, is certainly meant to be a commentary on that era. With its protagonists just on the cusp of adulthood -- independent and self-sufficient, but uncertain about any possible future -- when most of the action takes place, it is also a novel of that personal transitional period. And the narrative itself turns out to be something rather different than it first seemed, a story written in 1999, a writer's first-person recollections, of his experiences in 1985 and 1986, taking a year off before he starts college and already then trying his hand at some writing -- some stories, and some novel-ideas --, it takes on a rather different shape and form in its conclusion.
       The opening chapter describes a meeting between the narrator and the girl he loves, at the end of 1986. He is turning twenty, and travels to meet her; he has to leave soon, too -- and reveals then: "That was the last time I saw her." The scene then shifts from the events as they happened to the present-day, when the narrator is setting down his story:

     That was the last time I saw her. I type the sentence again and remove my fingers from the keyboard. Water's boiling in an old teakettle. It's dark outside and still wet, with the sound of rain falling.
       With her music in the background, he notes: "this is the year of the incredibly pretty Britney Spears", positioning himself in 1999. The words apparently still apply: he's still looking for the girl he loved; he apparently even has a private detective looking into her possible whereabouts.
       "Maybe the story should begin in 1985", the narrator notes, and most of the novel does then return to that time, as he carefully chronicles the events of those years.
       The narrator is a bit at sea. His family has fallen apart, because his father, an aspiring actor, finally has become a star -- and the public image he has to present leaves no room for the common wife he has. Ostensibly studying for his college exams, the narrator takes a job at a department store. He becomes friends with a fellow employee, Yohan. Also working there is the ugliest girl he has ever seen -- the girl he falls in love with.
       It's a cautious, slowly simmering romance. The girl is suspicious of his motives -- men are usually only friendly to her on a dare -- and the narrator isn't quite sure of much either, but Yohan helps nudge them in the right direction. They're an unusual trio, all living alone -- unusual in the Korea of that time -- and each being or feeling outcast in some way (Yohan is described to narrator as: "a freak" who used to be a student at a "top university" but now works in a relatively menial position).
       Pavane for a Dead Princess develops fairly slowly, reflecting the caution and uncertainty of its two central figures. The girl finds it hard to put her defenses down, all her experience teaching her that she is unlovable and unwanted, the dregs of society, regardless of her academic and other achievements. It's a superficial world and time, "an age where pretty trumped justice and pretty has the last word". Burned by how his father treated his mother, the narrator is also extremely cautious, and suspicious of a world that is so image-conscious. The situation is all the more obvious in the Korea of this time, rapidly industrializing and becoming terribly consumer-oriented and superficial -- as Park repeatedly points out and critiques.
       Matters are complicated when the narrator quits his job and does start college. He remains in touch with the girl and Yohan, but the relationships come under even more pressure when Yohan tries to take a similarly decisive step. Eventually, the girl also looks to cut her ties to the other two, believing she has attained all the happiness she could, and certain that the darkness she (and Yohan) always live with is inescapable.
       The opening chapter makes clear that the couple is happily reunited, having already described their get-together on his twentieth birthday, but the story then does more than come full circle in explaining why that was the last time he saw her. Or rather, the full circle takes on a rather different shape than it seemed to have initially. The story shifts, fundamentally -- and a few stray bits from the opening scenes fall into a different place. It's well turned, and lifts the novel being a well-crafted but almost pedestrian work to a considerably more resonant one.
       Pavane for a Dead Princess -- and its characters -- move slowly, which already gives the book a very different feel from your usual romance. The girl's extreme ugliness is also a complicating factor. The narrator does not deny it, or emphasize any sort of 'inner beauty' that blinds him to it -- in this, it's admirably restrained and much more realistic in its depiction of how confusing love can actually be -- but it's still difficult to present well, especially since Park is so fixed on using it to critique the superficiality of the consumer-society that has exploded in the South Korea of that time.
       The writing is very good throughout, though it can feel ponderous at times -- and there are parts that simply jar, such as philosophical wisdom such as:
     What defines a successful life ? A successful life is one in which more time is spent loving someone than is spent sitting on the toilet.
       The novel's success is also very much dependent on how Park ties it all together -- which fundamentally shifts all that has come before, and explains (and excuses) some parts that might have confused readers. The oddities of the narrative -- and there are aspects that seem rather odd at times -- aren't merely authorly willfulness (or rather: not willfulness of the sort they first seem to be)
       For long stretches Pavane for a Dead Princess impresses, but without being truly gripping. It is a very steady, even-handed novel, and while there is a lot to chew on, too, it -- like its protagonists -- seems to be holding back. Eventually it reveals itself as a much more cleverly conceived, well-crafted, and resonant work than it had seemed, but it's also pretty late in the day by the time it, and the characters, open up, including in the ways readers were probably hoping for more earlier.
       This is the kind of book that shows one should be careful with expectations: it seems to be a story about young love, and the story of a phenomenally unattractive romantic lead, but focusing on that -- and how we expect that kind of subject-matter to be treated -- distracts from Park's impressive actual accomplishments.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 October 2014

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Pavane for a Dead Princess: Reviews: Park Min-gyu: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       South Korean author Park Min-gyu (박민규) was born in 1968.

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© 2014-2016 the complete review

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