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Beauty of the Bizarre

Those who are familiar with Bora Chung’s earlier works would know that she has a penchant for unsettling her readers. In her latest collection of short stories—Your Utopia—she takes the absurdity quotient a notch higher. There’s immortality, cannibalism, aliens, the end of civilisation and more, but what makes these stories disturbing are not the sci-fi themes, but how likely of a reality they seem.

That makes the title of the book, which is laced with irony, even more mind boggling. The protagonist of the titular story is a car that has been left behind on earth after humanity has ended. Equipped with solar batteries, it manages to recharge itself on sunny days, which now there are few of. “Ever since humans left this planet, it’s been only machines like 314 and me… The machines that needed charging lost power one by one, only those with renewable energy sources like me survive,” the car informs the reader. That it is not difficult to guess what could have gone wrong with the planet is what makes the story unnerving.

Equally dystopian is the first story in the collection. It has an unusual title—‘The Centre for Immortality Research’; it doesn’t sound like a title. But, beyond that, the story, narrated by a disgruntled researcher whining over how all the responsibilities—big or small—of organising the centre’s 98th anniversary fell upon her, does not feel out of the ordinary. We learn that she is among the lowest ranking employees in the company hierarchy; she can barely contest what her seniors say in spite of knowing that she is in the right; she has to grudgingly pester a freelance graphic designer to work beyond her hours; she unintentionally becomes an accessory to a theft at the Centre and more of some bureaucratic bullying. The expected narrative takes an unexpected turn only on the penultimate page when she reveals that despite her involvement in the burglary, she would never be fired. “…I know a secret. Everyone at the Center knows the secret. The secret is that we really are immortal.”

Chung’s writing is difficult to put down. There are many reasons—the strange themes, and their even stranger treatment with generous use of literary devices such as irony, sarcasm, metaphors and hyperbole, but more than that it is how she builds her narration into levels that keeps the reader on the hook. There’s an introduction with all the background, then there’s the present, which she immerses the readers in with her fantastic imagination, before pushing them off a cliff and into the depths of uncomfortable and unbelievable truths. No wonder then that her short stories stay with you long after you’re done with them.

Your Utopia

By: Bora Chung

Translated by: Anton Hur

Publisher: Hachette

Price: Rs 599

Pages: 240

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