A dose of the strange | Review of ‘Your Utopia’ by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur

The South Korean writer’s latest collection is speculative fiction at its imaginative best

April 19, 2024 09:21 am | Updated 09:21 am IST

Dystopia seems to be the central theme of Bora Chung’s ‘Your Utopia’.

Dystopia seems to be the central theme of Bora Chung’s ‘Your Utopia’. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny was shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize. In this new offering, titled Your Utopia, and immaculately translated by Anton Hur, we meet a host of characters, some human, some decidedly not, all imbued with strong streaks of strangeness.

One hesitates to categorise this collection of shorts as pure science fiction; there is a wry cocking of the snook at human laws and constructs. There is the deconstruction of corporate monopolies, land grabs, ecological missteps, the misuse of advanced technology, of love, loss, anger, dismay. If dystopia seems to be the central theme, it’s an ironical touch given that the title has the opposite word — ‘utopia’ — in it, it is a dystopia that though woven through with surreal elements, is relatable to us. Though decidedly weird, nothing is really absurd. This is basically speculative fiction at its most creative, imaginative. Every robot is quite human, displaying compassion and curiosity.

Reading Asia | ‘The more I protest, the less “weirdly” I write’: an interview with Bora Chung

And yet, that element of strangeness persists. We meet people working at the Center for Immortality Research, with most of the senior staff displaying very mortal pettiness. We watch as people get suddenly and startlingly infected with cannibalism. We root (pardon the pun) for a species of plant-human hybrids as they try to save their patch of land from what else but humans. We are moved when an AI-enabled elevator develops a fondness for a woman suffering from the onset of Parkinson’s. We recoil in horror as a suspicious husband gets more than he bargained for, when he tries to keep track of his wife’s movements. We look on as Korea’s conservative society heaps harassment and condemnation on its LGBTQIA+ people. We observe a dream-catcher at work on a drug mafia queen’s dreams.

Author Bora Chung (left) and translator Anton Hur.

Author Bora Chung (left) and translator Anton Hur. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The changing world

Quite like the curate’s egg, some of the tales are moving, disturbing, sweetly sentimental and stay with the reader for a while after they are done reading. Yet others seem to move at a very slow pace or follow a convoluted plot. After the second story in this collection, the reader comes to expect the twist in the tale, and starts to second-guess the story, starts to look for that twist with enjoyable anticipation. The reader also begins to speculate if some of the strangeness is an allegory for our current way of life. Like all of civilisation trying to eat each other. Like, the purest form of communication is one-sided info dumps. Like, if the world I was designed for has changed so much, in what way must I myself change?

The translation is so flawless, something of the inherent Korean-ness in some of the stories gets lost in the process. However, viewed as global stories, this lot jumps over that stile with flying colours. And this reviewer quite appreciated the fact that several Korean words appear without italics, and without a glossary at the end of the book either; the curious will need to go look up those words.

Your Utopia
Bora Chung, trs Anton Hur

The reviewer is a Bengaluru-based author, journalist and manuscript editor.

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