Traveling usually means moving from one place to another, experiencing new cultures, trying different cuisines. However, thirty-two-year-old Jihun decides to embark on a different kind of trip: “My journey would be a journey of words, and a journey of letters“. And so he does for three years, spending each night in a different motel, without going far from home.
Written in first person with plain prose, No One Writes Back by South Korean writer Jang Eun-Jin tells of the unusual road trip of Jihun and his dog Wajo. Every day, before going to bed, he writes a letter either to a member of his family or to someone he has met on his journey. Every day he also calls his neighbor to check if he has received any letters. Only when someone writes back to him, so his journey of letters will come to an end.
Jang has published four novels and a collection of short stories. Published in 2009, No One Writes Back is her only book translated into English (2013). She has won three literary prizes: The Chonnam Ilbo New Short Story Award (2002), the Joongang Ilbo New Writers Contest (2004), and the 14th annual Munhakdongne Award (2009).
From delivering to writing letters
Before becoming a “letter traveler”, Jihun was a postman. His mother found him the job, as she was worried about her son, who had developed a stutter.
“Have you ever talked to the postman?”
“N-no,”, I said.
“Me neither. None of us have. All they have to do is deliver letters promptly. Words aren’t necessary as long as they do their job […]. You wouldn’t feel uncomfortable or nervous, either, since you won’t be coming into direct contact with people every often”, she said.
However, Jihun falls in love with a woman to whom he brings letters from her lover in England. When the nameless woman breaks up with her English partner, she and Jihun eventually get together. Yet, he never manages to write her a letter when they are a couple. After she abruptly leaves him, Jihun decides to quit his job and to write all the letters he had put off writing when he was a postman.
Wajo and number 751
Jihun presents himself as a lonely traveler and man. His only companion is Wajo, a blind dog: funnily enough, when motels refuse to accept pets, it is Jihun that pretends to be blind and to need a guide dog. In every room he stays, he writes in a hidden place, usually on the underside of the sink, a brief record of his stay: “Wajo and I were here”.
Wajo is the only character with a name. Jihun assigns simply a number to the people he meets on his journey. When the book begins, he has already met 750 people. One day on the subway, Jihun meets number 751, another solo traveler. Also known as the woman, she is a writer who is selling her latest novel entitled Toothpaste and Soap to commuters.
Embracing alienation and loneliness
The two start traveling together, sharing motel rooms as well as their own story. Jihun slowly opens up and starts accepting, if not desiring 751’s company. When he feels weird and lonely, the woman reminds him that not only people can heal loneliness: “If you are not lonely because you have Wajo, that means you’re not alone”. She even promises him to write the first novel with only one character, and readers wonder if 751 is actually the author of the story they are reading.
As literary critic Nicholas Lezard wrote, No One Writes Back is “‘a story of alienation told in a manner that does not feel sorry for itself, but goes about its business in an odd but determined way“. Readers empathize with Jihun and his journey of letters, with Wajo and the woman, because everyone is strange and lonely in their own way.
One day, Jihun leaves his last fellow traveler: it is time to go home and face reality. It doesn’t come as a surprise if No one Writes Back ends with a letter written by 751, as to confirm that “life is bearable when you have someone to write to, and someone who writes you back. Even if it’s just one person“.