The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun, Review: Gristly food for thought

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun is slim but impactful Korean literature… gristly food for thought for those planning post-pandemic travel itineraries.

The Disaster Tourist - Yun Ko-Eun, Translated Lizzie BuehlerThe Disaster Tourist Synopsis

Yona has been stuck behind a desk for years working as a programming coordinator for Jungle, a travel company specialising in package holidays to destinations ravaged by disaster. When a senior colleague touches her inappropriately she tries to complain, and in an attempt to bury her allegations, the company make her an attractive proposition: a free ticket for one of their most sought-after trips, to the desert island of Mui.

She accepts the offer and travels the remote island, where the major attraction is a supposedly-dramatic sinkhole. When the customers who’ve paid a premium for the trip begin to get frustrated, Yona realises that the company has dangerous plans to fabricate an environmental catastrophe to make the trip more interesting, but when she tries to raise the alarm, she discovers she has put her own life in danger.

Translated from Korean by Lizzie Buehler

(Allen and Unwin – July 2020)

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I have largely been avoiding ‘disaster fiction’ during this pandemic, conserving my emotional reserves on that score for the TV news each evening. But as we approach Women In Translation Month, I felt drawn to this newly released translation of Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist being marketed as a “satirical Korean eco-thriller with a fierce feminist sensibility”.

From the outset, cultural themes such as the individuals’ struggle for personal identities outside of their careers resonated strongly, but lead character Yona fell short against the feminist ideals I’d hoped for. Despite this, the peculiarity of both her personal situation and the travel company that she worked for had me sufficiently intrigued to continue reading.

Jungle divided disasters into thirty-three distinct categories, including volcano eruptions, earthquakes, war, drought, typhoons and tsunamis, with 152 available packages. For the city of Jinhae, Yona planned to create an itinerary that combined viewing the aftermath of the tsunami with volunteer work.

Good intention vs execution

The humour in this satirical thriller turns very dark, very quickly. In particular, characters’ deceptively simple, objective approaches to arguing the unthinkable are chilling. Yun Ko-eun’s none-too-subtle nods to real-world geopolitical issues add a weighty, prescient tinge to this surreal tale also.

There were several notable instances where translater Lizzie Beuhler evocatively conveyed Yun Ko-eun’s impactful simile.

Night came. Yona carried her camera around and captured images of the inside of the house. Damp bedding, a naked light bulb that drooped like the tongue of someone who’d hanged herself, the rusted roof and a door that looked like it had decided the day it was installed that it wouldn’t fit into its frame.

But as a whole, this novel’s text lacked the nuance and elegance I’ve come to expect from Korean translations.

Where this English translation of The Disaster Tourist is most successful is in its capacity to provoke

  • interrogation of our responses to disasters and what truly motivates them, and
  • greater consideration of unseen, undesirable impacts our actions as tourists may have on other people’s lives.

Yun Ko-eun’s fiction reminds us the slope from good intention to domination and destruction is scarily slippery.

The Disaster Tourist will prove gristly food for thought for all, but particularly those busy planning their post-pandemic travel itineraries.

BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 3.5 / 5

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Genre: Literature, Thriller, Adventure, Translation

Related Reads:
The Plotters by Un-su Kim  /  Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-yong  /  The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa  / Women in Translation Reading List, by geographic region

About the Author, Yun Ko-eun

Yun Ko-eun was born in Seoul in 1980. Her short story ‘Piercing’ won the Daesan Literary Award for College Students the year she graduated from university. She received the 2008 Hankyorek Literature Award for her novel The Zero G Syndrome. Then in 2015 her short story collection Aloha won the Kim Yong Ik Novel Prize.

* My receiving a copy from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions.