In “Snow Hunters,’’ Paul Yoon’s much-awaited first novel, a young man named Yohan emigrates from Korea to an unnamed port town in Brazil. He has just been put through the emotional wringer, having served time in a prison camp as a POW at the tail end of the Korean War. We first meet him in the winter of 1954, at 25, as he arrives in Brazil on a cargo ship during a rainfall, “dressed in an old gray suit that was too large for him . . . They were not his clothes.”
Over the course of the novel, Yohan experiences extreme amounts of kindness. His suit was gifted to him by an American nurse at the prison camp before he parted. Upon arrival in Brazil, a sailor hands him a blue umbrella in the rain, a woman’s umbrella. Next, Yohan is taken in by an old Japanese tailor named Kiyoshi and provided with room and board. The two get along and begin to live out a quiet, almost monk-like existence together.
“Snow Hunters’’ arrives four years after Yoon’s debut, “Once the Shore,’’ a celebrated collection of short stories that explored life over a half-century of war, occupation, and peace on a South Korean island. Yoon’s novel traces nearly a decade of Yohan’s life in its 196 pages.
Here the years pass like fleeting moments, and as the chapters add up, these moments form a poetic portrait of a man’s life in loneliness. Salvation, despair, displacement, longing — all elements of the émigré narrative — are never absent from a scene’s beat. Though love, alternately, seems to hide out of Yohan’s sight for most of his tale.
Yohan, we learn through flashbacks to the war, was captured near the wreckage of a bomb with a fellow soldier, Peng, blinded by the blast. American soldiers “found them because Yohan’s nose had been sticking up in the snow.”
From there, both Yohan and Peng are known around the POW camp as “Snowmen.”
Yohan had mended clothes in the camp, so he becomes Kiyoshi’s apprentice, making deliveries to the townspeople, learning the fine craft of tailoring, and perfecting his Portuguese while acquainting himself with his new Brazilian life. Along the way, he makes some lasting friendships: Peixe, the groundskeeper of the local church; Bia and Santi, two orphaned street children. The children disappear yet always return, slipping in and out of Yohan’s life. He watches them grow from playful, innocent children into young adults.
Yoon’s short stories were praised for their spare and beautiful prose, and “Snow Hunters,’’ too, shares that. Yoon often calls to mind Hemingway’s directness, as in this description of the prison camp: “that long field where the sky was always low and vast and where there was always a wind that carried the smell of the soil and sickness and the sound of animals.”
Or in this description of the Brazilian coast: “The water was blue and gray and broke as the birds dove.”
Minutiae and attention to detail are Yoon’s most powerful strengths. Yohan’s life is consistently peppered with memorable glances and kindnesses. Like when an American nurse asks Yohan for a dance on a Christmas night while he’s still in prison. She takes his hands in hers, “placed them around her waist. Then she wrapped her arms around his neck and stepped to the side, humming, and he followed her. . . . Her hat slid off as she rested her head against his chest and they danced in that field in the snow.”
At times certain gestures can seem overly sentimental. For Yoon is not a writer afraid of his characters’ emoting. Soldiers embrace each other or dance in solidarity at moments that don’t seem completely plausible. If Yoon must be faulted for anything in this compact novel, it is that he is often not hard enough on his characters. Yohan never feels as if he’s in any real peril, not during the war, in the prison camp, or as a stranger in a strange land. He is only kept wrist-bound for the first week in prison, and the worst he experiences is a beating by the guards that occurs in a nondescript scene off the page after Yohan loses all composure.
By the last few chapters it is clear that Yohan’s has been a life lived without love. But when Bia, the orphaned child, returns to the tailor’s shop a young woman, delicate gestures become tinged with romance. And although the inevitable between Yohan and Bia may feel a tad predictable, Yoon gives his readers what they felt was missing all along: an act of kindness that lasts longer than just a moment.