I’ve read this book three times, and it broke my heart each time, slowly and deliberately. I had mixed feelings about Yeon-sik Hong’s previous book, Uncomfortably, Happily, but this book feels like he’s leveled up. Where that book was explicitly autobiographical, this one is less so, and Hong’s work seems liberated as a result. Without having to be true to life, he can edit out the infinitude of details that made the previous book a little wearisome. He also makes the smart choice to depict his people with the heads of cats, a common and effective device that creates a little distance. If he’d drawn them all as recognizable humans, the story would be too painful.
“Umma” means “mommy” in Korean, and Umma’s Table mostly focuses on the relationship between the protagonist Madang and his mother, as illustrated through food they’ve shared. That’s simplifying it too much, though. Madang, his wife, and their baby son live out in the country, trying to provide a clean and simple environment for their child. Their house isn’t fancy, and they don’t have enough money to heat every room in the winter, but they love being outside and working in the garden. Madang’s aging parents live in the opposite kind of place, a basement apartment in Seoul. If you’ve seen Parasite, you have some idea of what this existence consists of. As Hong puts it, “In Seoul, living in a basement rental means you don’t have the right to enjoy a normal life above ground.” His dad is a drunk. His mother is depressed. They seem to spend most of their time lying on the ground with their small dog. Their health is falling apart, and that means every time there’s a health crisis or a monthly doctor’s appointment, Madang has to drive back into the city to help. He says, “My parents’ health problems were like a time bomb waiting to explode.” The contrast between these two worlds, which Hong presents as two separate planets, makes up the conflict in the book.
Hong establishes this metaphor very subtly at the beginning of the book, when Madang and family are driving through the snow to their new house. At first you think the way the car seems to be floating is just a method for showing how much snow there is, but when Hong draws the bottom of it and a couple of cows levitating nearby, it comes to seem like something stranger, a journey through space or something of the sort. Forty pages later, as Madang drives away from his parents’ home, Hong shows their apartment as a tiny, separate planet, shades of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, ringed by medication. He continues to play with it on and off through the rest of the book.
When Madang’s wife suggests that, given how unhealthy his parents’ environment is, perhaps they should move to the countryside and share their house, he responds, “Hold on! That would be like… the world I’ve worked so hard to leave behind and the world I’ve worked so hard to build… Colliding! It would be the collision of these two worlds!” with illustrations of two planets hitting each other. “If my parents move in with us, our worlds wouldn’t become one… It would mean the destruction of both our worlds!” Is he being overdramatic? Absolutely. Hong has already established his character as a bit of a buffoon, chasing after mice in a cartoonish rage or turning into a snowman when he stays outside too long. On the other hand, anyone who’s established their own family can relate to some extent. Later, Madang says, “Only beyond my parents’ reach is my world free to grow. In order to cultivate a happy and healthy future… you have to put in the time and effort. But most of all… the world I’m working hard to build should never, ever be disturbed.” Under the words, we see panels of the garden he and his wife and worked on for months, yet another metaphor for the world they’ve built together. The last panel on the page, however, shows his mother in a hospital bed. Now, rather than overdramatic, it seems like Madang is being selfish. One of the strengths and irritations of Uncomfortably, Happily was Hong’s depiction of himself as kind of a jerk, wrapped up in his own artistic production, needs, and desires. It’s also easy to see ourselves in him. When we’ve worked hard to create something and the world comes along and fucks it up, drags us back to where we started, are we not pissed about it? Of course we are.
Hong’s light touch with his drawings helps us not hate his main character. He plays with panel composition, and his use of two-page spreads really opens up his pages nicely. His art is rich in sensory detail and makes strong use of exaggerated emotion in a way that adds comedy more than tragedy. Maybe it’s an obvious comparison to talk about Proust’s famous madeleines in A Remembrance of Things Past, the most famous touchstone for the power of taste memory to compress time, but it’s also an apt one. When you finally get to that section of the multi-novel series, it pays off big time. Similarly, Hong’s panel transitions sometimes operate like the jump cuts of Citizen Kane, with one panel showing food going into Madang’s mouth as an adult, and the next panel, on the following page, with a long shot of the same thing happening when he’s a child, with his mother putting a sample in his mouth. Even if you can’t call up the specific taste, you know the feeling of eating something that your family fed you when you were little, the kinds of flavors that you’re always trying to recapture as you get older, whether those flavors involve kimchi or spaghetti or mashed potatoes.
The last 50-ish pages of the book are tough, full of inexorable death, illness, the overlapping tragedies one encounters in a hospital stay, family conflict, debt, realization, guilt, grief, and acceptance. They seem to be the way a lot of people’s stories play out, no matter what country they take place in. They’ll make you sad, and maybe you don’t want to feel sad right now. But in the end, Hong seems to be saying, we do what we can do. We love people. They disappoint us. They die. And life grows anew. It could be worse.