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The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher by Ahn Do-hyun

I was attracted to this book by its title, which appears to indicate a fairy tale or children’s story containing a moral. (Compare, for example, The Little Engine That Could.) That it was written by a Korean only confirmed my desire to read it as I had never sampled Korean fiction before. Given the story’s allegorical/fabular nature (though the illustrations are resolutely realistically sketched with the odd hint of Japanese style) I doubt it is representative of the country’s fiction writers: more so as the author is primarily a poet.

The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher is an exploration of the latter stages of the life cycle of a salmon. Its main protagonist is Silver Salmon, so-called because he does not have the usual dark upper body colouring but is easily visible to predators from above and thus requires to be surrounded by the shoal in order to protect him. (The author makes the claim that Pacific salmon shoals in the necessary formation resemble downed Boeing 747 aircraft.) Other named fish include Clear-Eyed Salmon, with whom Silver Salmon is mutually in love, the shoal leader, Big-Mouth Salmon, and a misfit, Bent-Back Salmon. The Green River, the shoal’s homing grounds, is also sentient and capable of speech.

Talking animal stories are always in some sense about human behaviour otherwise there would be little point in writing or reading them but I must admit I found the concept of salmon being in love a bit of a stretch. Prior to this development of their relationship Silver Salmon tells Clear-Eyed Salmon that he sees little point in a goal in life that consists solely in the laying of eggs but of course a salmon’s destiny is to circle back to its beginning.

The tale outlines the problems the salmon encounter on their life’s journey, and the fact that their greatest foe is humanity. The crux of the tale comes when they are faced by the rapids in the Green River and discover the opportunity to avail themselves of a human provided fish ladder. In the shoal’s discussions on how to proceed Silver Salmon says, “If we start by taking the easy way then our children will naturally want to follow in our footsteps, and soon it will be the only way they know. But if we leap up over the rapids, then our legacy will instead be all the suffering and joy of that single moment, the fear and exhilaration of putting everything at risk.” Here is our moral laid out.

The book is enhanced by occasional illustrations but the tense in the text changes from past to present and back again seemingly at random, sometimes within the same sentence. I assume this is a reflection of the original Korean and is intended. It certainly helps to give a sense of disjunction. It is a neat touch though that the book’s structure exactly mirrors a salmon’s life cycle.

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