The Impossible Fairy Tale, by Han Yujoo

Mia is lucky. She has two fathers who compete for her affection. They spoil her with expensive foreign coloured pencils, with jumpers that she’ll grow out of. Her mother dotes on her. In a school where casual cruelty and inexplicable rage is the norm, where children play at choking one another, and buy baby chicks only to stomp them to death, Mia is pretty and popular. She wants for nothing.

The Child, on the other hand, is none of those things. Her clothes are threadbare, her skin pallid. Her mother beats her and cuts her nails so short that it is painful for her to pick anything up. She is so far down the school’s rigid hierarchy that she does not even merit a name.

One night, The Child sneaks out of her flat and into the school, where forges her classmates’ handwriting and writes disturbing messages in their workbooks. This strange but more-or-less harmless act leads to still more horrifying acts. Another bright day, she slits the throat of a kitten she finds on the street. And then one day, after school, she follows Mia home from school, chokes her and cuts her throat.

But then, The Impossible Fairy Tale changes entirely. A woman awakes from a dream. A teacher. The Child’s teacher, who is writing a book named something like The Impossible Fairy Tale. And The Child knows everything that happens in her book, set several years ago, in some strange ontological swerve. The teacher’s appearance scores a line under this tale of neglect and inordinate cruelty, raising the spectre of the ethical status of making art out of horror: what happens if your story turns out to be true?

Written in an oneiric prose-poetry that cuts like a scalpel, and where ideas and physical things connect in a suffocating blanket. “We must not call that time “back then.” The words back then attempt to make the past too beautiful, something to long for,” Yujoo writes, “That time. Time’s grime. That time when I wanted to snap, trample, snip, cut, crumple, and ruin everything I saw.” In Han Yujoo’s world, language cuts, maims, and burns just as much as a blade or a set of nail clippers. The Impossible Fairy Tale is a meditation on pain — not just that which a knife causes, but that contained in ideas and in words. And with the arrival of The Child’s teacher in the second half, it becomes a meditation on the link between the two, how pain can be put down onto the page, can become narrative. Sticks and stones.

Kafka wrote that we must read books that take an “axe to the frozen sea within us.” The Impossible Fairy Tale does just this, but in doing so, it reveals what we gain from that thick, insulating ice. Strange creatures live in the depths below: creatures that we do not want to look at, though we can’t help but stare.

Han Yujoo has published many books in her native Korean, to much acclaim, but The Impossible Fairy Tale is the first to have been translated into English. Hopefully there are many more to come.

Graywolf Press kindly provided me with a copy of The Impossible Fairy Tale.

Han Yujoo, trans. Janet Hong, The Impossible Fairy Tale, Graywolf Press (Minneapolis: 2017)

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