Monday 16 September 2019

Marilyn and Me: Dark tale of survival amid Marilyn's visit to troops in Korea

Fiction: Marilyn and Me

Ji-Min Lee

4th Estate €13.99

Marilyn Monroe entertaining the US troops in Korea in 1954
Marilyn Monroe entertaining the US troops in Korea in 1954
Marilyn and Me

Anne Cunningham

This short and haunting novel gives the reader an insight into a war that's largely been forgotten. In fact most of us think of the Korean War in terms of the TV comedy MASH - as, in the rarity of TVs in the Fifties, we didn't witness it like we did the Vietnam War.

But we discover through Ji-Min Lee's protagonist Alice that this was as horrific as any war, as all wars, and that the scars on the survivors stay perpetually fresh.

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A young Marilyn Monroe performed for the American troops in South Korea and was later to state it was the first time she really felt like a star. This event is the hinge on which the author hangs her story of the fictional Kim Ae-Sun, now called Alice, swinging the plot back and forth in time from pre- to post-war.

Alice, a typist on an American military base, has been chosen to be Marilyn's translator for the duration of her visit. Born into the Korean middle classes, Alice is an art school graduate and an English speaker. Ten years prior, she had embarked on an affair with an older man whose wife and family were safely tucked away in the north of the country. His eventual rejection of Alice devastates her, but it's nothing compared to what she will soon endure when war breaks out.

And it is the war part of the story that is the most riveting, although truly horrific. Through a series of flashbacks we learn what has happened to Alice, and also what has happened to a five-year-old girl who was placed in her charge.

Now broken and defeated, Alice shuffles through her life like a quiet but internally combusting ghost. Her hair has turned grey (she washes it in beer to colour it) and her hands are permanently scarred.

Her typing and translating job - she is one of the lucky ones - merely occupies her days, which she seems to know are now numbered. And through Alice, Lee skilfully captures the disillusionment of post-war South Korea and its people's struggle to return to some kind of torturous normality.

There are oceans of books out there documenting the private human cost of war, though not so many that describe - almost comically - how Monroe, the ultimate symbol of glamour and sexiness, tiptoes her way across piles of post-war rubble in impossibly high heels.

Marilyn's part is relatively small but she embodies everything Alice can never be, even if both women share some traits, among them their dependence on sleeping pills and their dyed hair.

Much is made of Marilyn's blondeness in the novel, a symbol of America, of capitalism, of freedom.

The cost of this "freedom" for Alice, however, has scraped her hollow.

This is a dark, impactful story of bleak survival, brilliantly translated from Korean, with raw and shocking images that tend to linger. Although without spoiling, I found the plot hurried a little towards an unsatisfactory ending. That said, it's still a bone-chilling read.

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