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The Disaster Tourist

March 11, 2021

When I picked up The Disaster Tourist, by Yun Ko-eun, translated by Lizzie Buehler, I thought it would be something like Holidays in Hell by P.J. O’Rourke, ironic snapshots of vacation destinations that would be pleasant except for having been recently almost destroyed, with one of the points being that these haven’t always been disaster zones, places we can just give up on. O’Rourke had visited some of his destinations previously, as a reporter, and had fond memories that served to shape the hellish images he found on his return. Steve Martin also has a comic piece like that in Cruel Shoes, “Demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres.” But The Disaster Tourist is not at all like that.

I looked up “disaster tourism” and found lots of links to articles about “dark tourism,” defined best, I thought, in a November 2019 article from the Washington Post. Looking it up, I had vague ideas about Pompeii and why we didn’t leave the bodies discovered there in situ but took them out to make the site more of an educational experience about how these people lived, rather than a snapshot of how they died. One of the photos in the dark tourism article, however, shows bodies from Pompei in a group, out of their original context, suspended on short pillars.

The article points out that people visit Chernobyl, Gettysburg, Auschwitz, and the 9/11 memorial in NYC. Conflating visits to memorials with “tourism” seems wrong, though. I’ve been to the 9/11 memorial and to Gettysburg, and for the most part people were somber; they were there to learn about what happened and why. I’ve also been to the Holocaust museum at the Smithsonian, although not on the trip when we took the kids. I went later, by myself, peering briefly into some of the exhibits that were mounted too high for little kids to see into without help, worried that even that was exhibiting a prurient interest in the gory bits that had been so helpfully highlighted.

True “disaster tourism,” it seems to me, is taking a trip in order to look at live, suffering human beings. Reporters sign up for this (and they vary, as a group, in their responses: they tell the story as a witness to the world, they sometimes intervene, they often get hardened by too many such experiences). Carolyn Forche wrote an entire volume of poetry about being a witness to suffering, The Country Between Us. Sean Penn has been called a disaster tourist, but he also stays to help put things back together. Some of my friends and neighbors got a look at New Orleans right after Katrina because they were there to help with the cleaning-up efforts.

So I’m thinking that the main character of The Disaster Tourist, Yona–who works for a travel agency called Jungle that specializes in disaster tourism trips– is only slightly exaggerated for satiric effect in Yun Ko-eun’s novel. We are introduced to Yona as she prepares an itinerary for a trip to a recent disaster area “that combined viewing the aftermath of the tsunami with volunteer work.”

The action of the novel begins when Yona has trouble at work and is told it’s because of a “foul.” She doesn’t understand the word, and readers don’t either, but it becomes clear that her reputation has suffered enough that a manager who is known for sexually harassing women at work feels secure enough to begin harassing her. When she offers to resign, he unexpectedly offers her a break in the form of a trip to review one of Jungle’s packages. She picks a trip to a desert sinkhole on a fictional island called Mui.

I tried to like Yona, or at least sympathize with her, as one usually does with the main character in a novel, but it soon proved impossible (a clue about the satiric nature of this novel). The final blow came when Yona sees a child poking at ants with a stick and she “recalls cutting open the stomachs of crickets and grasshoppers with a box cutter when she was younger.” Soon after that, Yona thinks her camera has been stolen and the resort has an entire native village searched, resulting in a debate about “ethical tourism.”

When Yona misses a connection for her trip home and has to return to the resort on Mui, she begins to see more of what is happening than tourists usually do. Finally she is let into the secret, that everyone at the resort is working with a corporation called Paul to bring a disaster recovery program to the island, and the plans include causing a new sinkhole, complete with one hundred dead bodies. Some of these bodies are currently being stored in freezers, while others will have to be created on the day scheduled for the disaster. They rationalize what they’re doing, saying to Yona that “there’s not really a difference between dying in a natural disaster and starving to death.” And of course, they successfully entice Yona into using their disaster as a way to keep her job: “what do you think about staying here, doing research and coming up with a new itinerary? If you prepare the trip beforehand, it will be good both for you and for your company. Jungle can unveil its new programme immediately after the disaster happens, when the island is still straightening things out….our resort will work only with you.”

Yona’s willingness to implicate herself in Mui’s disaster scheme precipitates the events of the last part of the novel. The islanders explain more and more of their (ironically exaggerated) arithmetic for what makes a human life count on the island. There’s a bit about trucks running people over. There’s a bit about a man who carried luggage finally being crushed by tourists’ luggage: “on his last day, Chori had carried sixty kilograms—an easy load compared to the burden of being a poor child on Mui.” There’s a final bit about “crocodiles”–poor people who get in the way of the plans for tourism–being “cleaned up.” In the end, Yona finds that she has been written into the disaster day script as “crocodile 75” and she has no lines, a euphemism meaning she has to die along with “Man 20,” one of the islanders who “needed money more than he needed life.”

It’s difficult to decipher the aim of the satiric exaggeration in this novel. Is the point that we shouldn’t travel, shouldn’t look, shouldn’t try to see? But we’re being shown. Is the point that our actions cause the bad things we deplore? But trying not to look as you pass a car wreck doesn’t speed up the line of cars formed due to rubbernecking. Is the point that humans are bad and we need to be aware of our badness? Maybe. But that message is a fragile one, like the position of the disaster tourist, who is more aware of suffering than the average person and therefore entitled to some feeling of satisfaction. I know that I’m better than Yona because I didn’t torture bugs as a child; that feeling of superiority is not the feeling that a good satire should produce.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2021 12:25 am

    Doesn’t sound as if there were someone to root for. Or to identify with. Interesting concept. It has some merit in catering to the worst of humans’ behaviors – I’ll help, a bit, but what’s in it for me?

    I had the same reaction to your review (nice) that I had to the first chapter of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces: well written, and no way at all was I going to read more than the first chapter which completely horrified me. The main character is horrible – and ends up completely justifying himself with his mother’s help (IIRC).

    I plowed through a few books like that (Tess of the D’Urbervilles was one) when I was younger, but then learned to stop reading when the ick factor got too high. Not enough time left in my life, so thanks for the warning.

    • March 14, 2021 11:38 am

      In satire there isn’t anyone to root for; instead you get the pleasure of feeling superior to those who don’t see the problem/get the joke.
      What you say about A Confederacy of Dunces makes me realize that we don’t always like to admit how much pleasure there is in feeling superior. In that one way it’s kind of like looking at the victims of disaster.

  2. March 11, 2021 12:40 am

    Great and thoughtful review!
    When I was at school some 35 years ago, the whole form had to visit the concentration camp near Dachau. Schools still do this as part of our German remembrance culture of the Holocaust. It’s the exact opposite of fun tourism, it’s impressive, highly disturbing, and important. We went there well prepared by history lessons and talked about it afterwards.
    Same for my later visits to 9/11 memorial or Pompeji: beyond being highly remarkable and interesting, those sites are touchable, real, and enable one to relate to what happened in a way that other documentation cannot.

    • March 14, 2021 11:43 am

      The key, as you note, is that you visit these memorials well prepared by history lessons and you talk about it afterwards.
      I guess what bothers everyone about tourists is that they don’t seem to care about the things that mean a lot to the local people. We sometimes justify this in terms of “race” (I see this a lot in stories about Hawaii) but in the end it’s usually a clash between people who value a way of life and people who ridicule it and therefore make it less possible. Where I live, we have seen this with busloads of tourists riding around in Amish country looking for things that strike them as quaint or old-fashioned.

      • March 14, 2021 12:10 pm

        These sites want to be visited. That‘s different from Amish who live a life of their own and people confuse this with a kind of zoo or Disney Park or Jamestown Indians and settlers. That‘s my take at least. I think that Amish look funny and would like to meet and talk to them. I don‘t know how I‘d react on a bus tour.
        You live in Pennsylvania?

        • March 14, 2021 1:31 pm

          True, the sites are set up to be visited.
          I live in central Ohio, in a rural area where there are many Amish farms.

  3. March 11, 2021 7:51 am

    Oh, interesting! I won’t say too much here because I’m looking forward to talking to you about it live, but I had a different response to the protagonist.

    • March 14, 2021 11:45 am

      As you note, my reaction to the cricket and grasshopper torture might be extreme. Lots of kids do cruel things to bugs and don’t grow up to be psychopaths.

  4. March 11, 2021 3:39 pm

    Interesting. Maybe it’s about taking pleasure in the pain and suffering of others and the irony of finding out that you are about to become an example of the pain and suffering yourself? Sounds like you and Jenny will be talking about this so will be interesting to hear what comes out of that!

    • March 14, 2021 11:46 am

      Yes, exactly, that irony when she becomes an example of the pain and suffering she has designed tours to exhibit is the heart of the novel.
      Jenny and I had different reactions to the bug torture, as I note above.

  5. March 12, 2021 7:31 pm

    Hmm…it sounds like the author is trying to warn readers against overdoing it with disaster tourism. Turning what should be a somber experience and/or a chance to help rebuild into a mere exhibit.

    Even if it’s a fictional disaster, there’s a line between bringing the story to life and totally missing the point. I remember being very unimpressed with a proposal for a Hunger Games theme park, and gave a very serious side-eye at an ad for a nail polish brand’s “Capitol Colors” gimmick. Why would I want to celebrate a group of people whose purpose was to benefit from institutionalizes child murder?

    And then there was my grade school’s spring carnival and its Sinking Titanic inflatable slide. My mom didn’t let either my brother or me try it, and even as a young teen I didn’t quite blame her.

    • March 14, 2021 11:49 am

      You make a good point–satire is almost always about warning readers not to overdo something.
      And yes, your examples from the Hunger Games publicity are spot on. Most of the advertising for the Hunger Games movies was cringe-worthy in how much they missed the point.
      On the other hand, I’m kind of amused at the idea of a Sinking Titanic inflatable slide. So much of whether you’re amused or appalled has to do with how much time has passed.

      • March 14, 2021 3:07 pm

        That’s very true, re: time passing. There are apparently two animated Titanic movies, both of which are hiLARiously tasteless. One involves a rapping dog and the other has a dog-nosed octopus named Tentacles.

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