"Only four genes control vision, but more than one thousand genes are involved with smell and taste. But one thousand genes can disappear faster than the four." So says Jeong Ji-won, chef and narrator of Kyung-ran Jo's surprising and nuanced novel Tongue. The senses of smell and taste, she says, are closely linked to the life force. In the wake of trauma, many find their senses of taste dulled. Conversely, those who lose their tongues or the function of their taste buds due to injury or disease become suicidally depressed, more so than the newly blind. Perhaps it's because these senses are tied so closely to memory.
Ji-won is a celebrated chef in her native Seoul, where she leaves the Italian restaurant in which she trained to begin offering private cooking classes, taught in the home she shares with her architect boyfriend. Four years on, she walks in to find her boyfriend having sex with one of her students, on the kitchen counter he designed especially for Ji-won. Suddenly unable to find enjoyment in even a cup of cocoa or her favorite sandwich, she shutters her school and returns to the comfort of her old job and her old mentor.
Although Tongue is filled with cooking techniques and food trivia — and even includes a history of restaurants — it's really about living in the wake of disappointment and about how people's lives are reflected in their eating. Ji-won's aunt was an anorexic who, leading up to her suicide, refused to eat anything but clementines. In contrast, Ji-won's grandmother recovers from a death in the family through cooking and teaching her granddaughter about food.
Tongue is reminiscent of Banana Yoshimoto's cult classic Kitchen in the parallels it makes between appetite for life and for food, and the way food is used to revive a person's will to live. Although in Tongue, you're not sure until the end if Ji-won wants to recover.
A best-selling and award-winning author in her native South Korea, Kyung-ran Jo is, with this book, being translated into English for the first time. It's a clever debut; a simple-looking dish from the outside that, once you bite in, reveals hidden layers and complexity — and a shockingly bitter finish.