By Luciana Leitão
The main character is Henry Park, a Korean American, like the author himself. It all starts with his wife apparently leaving him, making him question everything, including his own identity, in a country that is not entirely his.
“Native Speaker” is Chang-rae Lee’s debut novel. And, even though the action is set in the 1990s, it is very much current — it is a story of an immigrant living in the US and all the identity issues at stake.
Henry’s parents are Korean and he has spent his life trying to be a true American — and, of course, a native speaker. At the same time, his Korean background seems to get further away as the story unfolds.
The main character is an intriguing one, as his profession — spy — seems to be shaped by his own very Korean upbringing. Hide your emotions. Remember everything you learn. Remember your roots. Almost as if he was taught already to be a spy, in this foster country, the US. Yet, what makes him a very good — and natural — spy also damages his personal life, namely his marriage to an American wife.
“Surreptitious, B+ student of life, illegal alien, emotional alien, Yellow peril, neo-American, stranger, follower, traitor, spy,” are the words left in a note by his wife to describe him. And this will haunt him throughout the book.
“Native Speaker” is a book about cultural identity and the need to belong in a foreign country, as conflicting as it may be in regards to one’s roots. Espionage seems to work well under this topic, operating almost as a metaphor for this strange connection between Asians and the US, the foster country.
I’ve just read it, even though I bought it a few years ago after a trip to South Korea. And I, of course, loved the topic, considering I am a Portuguese living in a different country, facing cultural clashes everyday.
But more than the topic itself, I particularly loved the style of writing of the author, disconcerting at times — precise, short sentences, sometimes almost unintelligible, but, at the same time, deeply intelligible, once you grasp the meaning of the metaphors. It’s a freewheeling prose, taking us inside Henry’s head.
Sometimes, you might get confused in the plot, as the author seems to go back and forth, without notice. But, to be honest, the fact that you keep attached to the book without letting go is a sign of the author’s talent — even if his prose style is not always coherent, changing from ironic to melodramatic almost in the same paragraph, you don’t seem to want to let go.
“Native Speaker” won several awards, when it was released. In the meantime, Chang-rae Lee already wrote a few more novels, which also won numerous awards and citations. Considering this was my debut on Chang-rae Lee’s work, I am very curious to read the rest of his novels.