Translated from Korean by Lizzie Buehler
Winner of the 2021 Crime in Translation Dagger
Dark tourism or disaster tourism is on the rise. There are valid reasons for visiting places like concentration camps (lest we forget) and other man-made or natural disaster sites (education, empathy, administering aid). But as with everything, the less honourable will seek to profiteer by commercialising experiences beyond any sense of authenticity …
Yona Ko works for Jungle, a company based in Seoul that specialises in tours to ecological disaster zones. It’s not a company I’d choose to travel with due to its draconian cancellation policies; i.e no cancellation even if your travelling companion dies. So uncaring towards its customers, imagine how it treats its employees. No surprise then that following a nasty case of sexual harassment, the company bribes Yona with an all-inclusive jaunt on its most expensive package, to Mui, an island of the coast of Vietnam known for its giant sinkhole. The package itself is in danger of being struck from the catalogue, and Yona, posing as a bona fide tourist, is to assess its continued viability while she is there.
The trip is hardly scintillating and Yona is glad to return home. Yet she is separated from her party, loses her papers and money, and finds her only option is to return to Mui to await rescue. The island she finds upon her return bears no resemblance to the tourist trap she left. Slowly the facade presented to the tourists – who visit only at weekends – is peeled back layer by layer. When the manager of the resort, who is aware of the danger to the island’s livelihood, realises Yona’s true identity, he enlists her help with plans for improving the island’s disaster credentials.
These plans are surprisingly advanced, extremely cynical and not at all benign. A commercial enterprise, named Paul, seems to call the shots, marking out the land, determining who may go where and when. Locals, naturally, may not enter tourist areas, and Paul’s yellow trucks are omnipresent on weekdays. When Yona witnesses a nightmarish incident involving one of these trucks, alarm bells should ring, but no. Not even when such incidents proliferate. As she is entrusted with further details about how Mui will become a true disaster area, questions are raised about her own ethics. At what stage does she become complicit in what is about to transpire?
I couldn’t warm to Yona – the way in which she was so easily bought off at the beginning was a warning flag. Even when she fully understands the plan, she rationalises her actions.
Because her involvement wasn’t direct, Yona stayed silent, and as she got more used to her position, she grew insensitive to her work.
Now where have we heard that before?
There are indeed weighty ethical and moral concerns underpinning Yun Ko-Eun’s biting satire on contemporary disaster tourism, but her plot is so blackly comic that the novel never bows beneath them. I don’t often quote book blurbs, but this, from the Times, sums things up perfectly.
I’d say this was a perfect short novel for reading on the beach, but given what’s in store …