South Korea: telling tales

February 27, 2012

‘A man needs to understand where he comes from in order to be truly human’

The question of what counts as national literature keeps cropping up in this project. As recommendations for books from different countries continue to flood in, I’m struck by the different interpretations people have.

For some of us it’s about whether a book is set in a particular country. Others think that books have to be by people who hold citizenship or were born and brought up in the nation. Still others say it’s down to whether the author, who may hold citizenship for several states, identifies him or herself as being ‘from’ that place. Meanwhile countries themselves are often very quick to claim great writers with very cosmopolitan backgrounds as their own.

As I’ve been researching the titles for the list, I’ve found myself leaning towards a definition of national literature that requires the writer to have a strong connection with the country in question. Frequently this will mean that he or she was born there, but it can also be the case that the writer has adopted a country or lived there for a large chunk of his or her life, as in the case of South Korean-born Austrian writer Anna Kim.

But what happens if you were born into a nationality that no longer exists?

Celebrated South Korean dissident writer Hwang Sok-Yong — himself born before Korea was divided after the second world war — explores the scars that such nation making and breaking leaves on individual and national psyches and the stories that we tell to explain them in his haunting 2002 novel The Guest.

Following an elderly American pastor, Yosop, who joins a government programme to visit the region in North Korea where he was born, the narrative explores the legacy of a 52-day massacre that saw around a quarter of the population of Hwanghae Province killed during the 1950 Korean War. The massacre has long been attributed to the US forces by the North Korean government, but Yosop’s memory of events is somewhat different. As he works his way around the initiative’s series of carefully stage-managed events and visits his remaining relatives inside the secretive communist state, he encounters a series of characters and ghosts who enable him to piece together a much more rounded and disturbing picture.

The book presents a refreshing contrast to the two-dimensional reports that make up the bulk of reporting on North Korea in the Western media. Less interested in attacking the regime than in illuminating the reasons for its development, Hwang presents a subtle and nuanced picture of the country, which he was jailed by the South Korean government for visiting illegally in 1989 — ‘It seems the communists, too, can be quite humane, eh?’ remarks one of Yosop’s companions in Pyongyang.

Nevertheless, the administration’s vice-like grip on the national narrative simmers beneath the novel, bubbling to the surface now and then — as in the scene where Yosop is forced to sit and listen to a series of hysterical survivors’ stories of US atrocities at a state museum, all the while knowing them to be false.

In fact, the role of memory and eye-witness accounts underpins the novel. Much of the narrative is stitched together from a series of somewhat surreal monologues delivered by the living and the dead.  At times, these can feel stilted and forced — not helped by the hefty chunks of exposition which the complex subject matter requires.

Nevertheless, the resolution depends on each of the beings having the chance to deliver his or her testimony; only once all the contrasting accounts have been heard and considered can Yosop’s ghosts be laid to rest.  The right to swap stories, however controversial, messy, provocative or contradictory, is essential to the way we understand and assimilate our origins, it seems, no matter where we’re from.

The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong (translated from the Korean by Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West). Publisher (Kindle edition): Seven Stories Press (2011)

2 Responses to “South Korea: telling tales”

  1. cassie said

    This sounds like a great book. One of my best friends is teaching English in South Korea right now and I bet he would live to read this. I assume its factual in parts other than when the dead speak….is that right, or no? I’m loving reading your blogs on books and the countries relayed.

    • Thanks Cassie. Yes, Hwang Sok-Yong writes in his Author’s Note at the beginning of the book about the research he undertook for it. Apparently it is not only based on historical facts, but also based on a true-life story from someone he met and interviewed. He’s written quite a few books so there’s plenty for your friend to get his teeth into if he likes this one. Good to have you along for the ride.

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