By Hwang Sok Yong
Translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
Scribe (2019), 252 pages
Of course, it wasn’t until much later, after I’d gone to the ends of the Earth and suffered every kind of hardship, that I understood exactly why she had named me ‘Bari’.
Bari’s story begins just before the great famine in the early 1990s in North Korea, during which hundreds of thousands of—perhaps a million—civilians starved to death. Just as in many of his previous books, Hwang Sok-Yong sets Princess Bari in the midst of Korean history, giving the reader insight not only into his characters, but into the history of his home country. He paints a picture of a family living through this horrific time, but intertwines it with the fantastical mythology of the great Princess Bari, known to many Koreans as Barigongju (바리공주).
In the beginning, young Bari’s father is well respected. And while he is continually suffering the apparent pain of having seven daughters—just as the mythical Barigongju’s father had—their life is pretty calm. Then the famine hits, and everything changes. They are moved to a new city, resources become scarce, and eventually they are all forced to leave the safety of their home in the little border town in the western region of North Korea. This is when the real struggles begin, for the family, and for Bari in particular. They start 고난의 행군, also known as the arduous march or the march of suffering, in search of both food and safety.
Once the famine set in, everywhere Bari goes there is suffering. She can’t escape it. It is etched into the faces of everyone she meets. Bari sees it in her mother’s face as she is dragged off to Puryong at the beginning of the famine, she sees it in her father as he goes off in search of his missing family members knowing full well he may never return. She sees it in the spirits she meets along her journey. All are still hungry, still crying, and still suffering from their deaths. Ultimately, she sees it in her own life. The suffering never seems to let her be.
It is not simply coincidence that Bari, named after Princess Bari, finds herself surrounded in this way by sadness. Her grandmother had given her this name —meaning abandoned—after her parents refused to name her, disappointed by the birth of a seventh daughter. Cast aside, literally like garbage, young Bari was found in the family doghouse and then taken under her grandmother’s wing. In naming her Bari, her grandmother sang her the song from the great folktale, “throw her out, the little throwaway. Cast her out, the little castaway.” While the family eventually reconciled and began living together once more, Bari was always truly her grandmother’s child. The two would soon find their bond was closer than they could have imagined.
Once life becomes too dangerous in North Korea, Bari escapes across the border into China and eventually makes her way to London. Her path is wandering and dangerous, traveling first with her father, sister, and grandmother, and later with the guidance of her grandmother’s spirit. When you are among generations of shamans, you are never truly alone on your journey. The spiritual bond between she and her grandmother grows ever stronger the more difficult life becomes.
As Bari ventures on, her gifts become ever more apparent. She is on not only a physical journey to find safety and her family, but a metaphysical one where, like Princess Bari, she discovers her true mission. Looking back, when Grandmother would tell the story of Princess Bari, young Bari would shout, “I know what happens next! She has to bring back the life-giving water to save her parents and the people of the world, right?” The mythical princess traveled across many planes to find and bring back this magical water. But what does that mean for the real Bari? What is she meant to do?
As a shaman, Bari is able to see into people’s lives, into their pasts. She can read people, and see and speak to the dead. This ability gives her great insight not only into their past, but also into their present. But what is she meant to do with this responsibility? Is it her job to alleviate or solve their suffering? Is she somehow meant to use these skills to go back and save her family? Can she answer the question the ghosts continue to ask her—“why do we suffer?”
Some of these answers are found by young Bari throughout the story, but Hwang Sok-Yong leaves us to answer others on our own. One can’t help but wonder how many of these questions might remain for those still living in North Korea. The author himself was imprisoned in South Korea during the great famine for a “breach of national security” for traveling to the north for artistic exchange. Perhaps with this book, in his own way, he was trying to answer the same questions as young Bari? With so much suffering continuing in North Korea and elsewhere, perhaps we can use the mythology of Princess Bari as a response to the questions of today – as a guide to release from suffering.
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