Liminality: Paul Yoon, Snow Hunters

Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon is a very short novel. It has similarly short, simple sentences that looked deceptively simple and easy going. It ended up actually being harder to get through than I expected. The leisurely pace of the events, the more reflective tone, all of it. Compared to the other war fiction and creative non-fiction, it’s docile. The other narratives were often categorized by the overt emotion of a moment, by action or the lack of action. This is, on the surface, more simple. Yellow Birds is the closest, but its meditative feel comes from long, winding sentences.

To me, this novel is anti-war. Most depictions we see are negative: being a prisoner; being blown up and covered in snow and becoming blind; caring for wounded. The one positive moment was when Yohan heard the music the soldiers danced to before he was enlisted. In the narratives that felt more war-positive, the emphasis was also on the action and the preparation and the community building. Esprit de corps. The focus was also on the lead-up and preparation to the war and the “during.” Snow Hunters, by contrast, focuses primarily on what happens after the war. Though it does touch on the “pre” war, it’s in a nostalgic way, questioning what would have happened if he hadn’t gone.

Not only is the focus on the post-war, but there’s also a fantastic, beautiful look at the lonely that comes after the war. The lonely is what, to me, makes the anti-war stories. We see Yohan lose his closest friend—who he gained again during the war, part of the camaraderie narrative, though Peng was a shell of who he was. Yohan lives in Brazil as a very single person, even with Kiyoshi. Part of this is the language isolation, which could also be a metaphor for the post-war experience of many veterans. They return from the war with a certain language and way of being inside of them, yet when they return, no one around them can understand that language.

I questioned the cover copy, though, because it implied more struggle and drama with Yohan’s connection to people. It reads, “Yohan longs to connect with these people, but to do so, he must let go of his traumatic past.” There is so little that seems traumatic here, in comparison to the other narratives we’ve read. On that note, I assume this comes from the lack of page space spent depicting the wounded, but we never see any direct trauma happening to Yohan, which other authors seem to glory, by comparison. Peng is the only wounded person we really get to know from his past. We do spend a decent amount of time reflecting on Peng and his loss, but the only hardship Yoon describes in his new life is the nightmares he had when he first arrived. These aren’t even described when the nightmares are actually occurring; they’re mentioned when several years in Brazil have already passed and it’s mentioned as if they’ve ceased occurring. His memories/past didn’t seem in conflict with the friendships he forms. By contrast, he actually seems to form relationships well, given language barriers. He befriends the sailor despite the time and distance; he befriends Kiyoshi, however quietly; Peixe and even the children. He’s welcomed into the community via Kiyoshi. It never actually seems like he is actively having a difficult time connecting with people because of his “traumatic past.”

Paul Yoon also does something interesting with time. At first, I was actually very confused. In part three, he writes starts chapter fourteen with Yohan riding the bike to deliver the papers, and then we’re actually catapulted back in time to watch the years fall into place until we’re told again that he’s got a job delivering papers. It’s as if his mind is on a loop. I wondered if that was part of memory functioning in this piece the way we’ve mentioned in other narratives and PTSD. It can dissolve at any time, or certain things would get rebranded into the memory.

As a war novel, this book is definitely different. I tried to put my finger on why it wouldn’t have any of the action-packed “war for the ages” sort of blurb, but Ann Patchett’s blurb said it really well: “…Snow Hunters is a beautiful and moving meditation on a solitary life.” Not a meditation on war or a solitary life after war or the forceful and willful migration war forces on people. But the emphasis on the solitary life. A close reader can recognize the things I mentioned, yet, the book is overwhelmingly about a man living somewhat alone and apart from people. It doesn’t have the trappings we’ve come to see as “war” narrative.

There is no enemy.

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