Umma’s Table by Yeon-sik Hong review – Seoul food to make you purr

In South Korea, they make some of the most beautiful comics I’ve ever seen. In particular, I recommend those published by Changbi. I completely adore Sim Woodo’s Please Take Care of Cafe Bomoon, which centres on a local coffee shop and reflects what young Koreans know as SCH, or Small But Certain Happiness. Except, well… at the moment, this most lovely-looking of graphic novels is only available in Korean, a language I can neither speak nor read.

But while we wait for it and other of Changbi’s titles to be translated – who will take on this crucial task? – there is always Yeon-Sik Hong, whose charmingly awkward autobiographical graphic novel about moving to the countryside, Uncomfortably Happily, was published in English in 2017. Umma’s Table is a semi-sequel to that story, and the second part in a proposed trilogy; its narrator is Madang, an artist and new father who is trying desperately to make a life for himself at a distance from Seoul, where he grew up. Madang wants a healthier, more bucolic life for his baby son, and he’s thrilled to have found a just-about-affordable house where there are trees and a garden in which he can grow tomatoes, radishes and bitter greens; where, in the winter, his child will have the space to enjoy a pristine eiderdown of snow.

A page from Umma’s Table

A page from Umma’s Table. Illustration: Yeon-sik Hong

But this isn’t only a question of lifestyle. He’s also on the run from the dank, dark basement flat where his elderly parents are struggling to survive. Of course he wants to help them; he’s always driving to Seoul to take his mother to her hospital appointments. Nevertheless, something – it’s close to dread – keeps him from getting too close. It is as if he fears that their low spirits, if not their ill health, might be catching.

It was Madang’s family basement that first drew me to this book; it made me think of the Oscar-winning Parasite, also set partly in an insalubrious and insanitary Seoul basement. But there’s a lot going on in its pages. For one thing, there’s an uncommon honesty at play here – a ruthless candour only thinly disguised by the fact that Hong draws his people as cats. Madang performs his role as oldest son very dutifully, but he won’t pretend it’s a privilege to look after his parents; he’s often angry, apt to blame them for their situation, however irrationally.

For another, there’s his obsession with food. The title of the book refers to his mother’s table – in his memory, it was bigger than her kitchen – at which, as boys, he and his brother ate so many delicious meals. How did she produce these feasts? She had such scant resources. The parts of this book that I enjoyed most were those taken up with Madang’s memories of these dishes, and his often hapless attempts to reproduce them with perfect accuracy: the dumplings, the kimchi, the soy bean paste bibimbap. This is a book about all the ways in which food, a proxy for love, can bring people closer; eating together, its author suggests, can make even the most complicated of families healthier and stronger and happier. In these strange times, such a message could hardly be more resonant. I put it down and went immediately to a cupboard, hard on the trail of a bottle of fish sauce.

Umma’s Table by Yeon-sik Hong (translated by Janet Hong) is published by Drawn & Quarterly (£18.99)

The Guardian

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