If Yona blows the gaffe, and Jungle cancels its tour agreement, then there’s only one thing the islanders can do: stage another catastrophe, better and bigger than the last. As the enormity of the islanders’ plans dawns on her, Yona falls in love, grows in courage and rises in our estimation. Meanwhile the forces pitched against her reveal their true scale and monstrosity in a frothy-seeming satire that, in the end, shreds the very idea of commerce to bleeding tatters.
Translator Lizzie Buehler deftly coveys the subtle tonalities of the prose, variously graceful and light (when Yona goes into work, she feels “like a dandelion seed that had somehow drifted into a building”), witty and absurd, then suspenseful, even terror-filled. Descriptions of the climactic disaster are flattened and attenuated, becoming strangely euphoric as the narrative focuses on all the anonymous lives shattered, people dispossessed by forces beyond any of the characters’ imaginations.
By now the level of intrigue and scheming – involving the exploitation of the most vulnerable local people – is at such an alarming scale that only nature can outdo it. Utter devastation awaits. The abhorrent past meets the despicable present. The debris of catastrophes on other islands meets at sea with that of the Mui disaster. Somewhere, people are booking a holiday to see what remains. All of this is delivered in what might be said to be a familiar form of Korean writing, known to us now, thankfully, through many translations. An ostensibly detached style, using simple language.
Throughout Disaster Tourist, there is a sense of impending catastrophe, of something huge and uncontrollable swallowing up those who spend their lives packaging, controlling and creating these macabre tours. The author feels present throughout, like a god watching her characters’ acts of hubris and deciding how and when to smite them. In this phenomenal book, Yun demonstrates how disaster tourism is a kind of theatre: people are ‘merchandise’, the reality tourists just ‘a shadow of reality’.