The city was like a cinema screen; a flat square of city life lay out there. Watching it made Yosop himself feel as if he were no longer quite three-dimensional. The multitude of people who had created this movie for themselves had singled out Ryu Yosop, and they had no intention of ever letting him in, no matter how desperately he tried to climb into the screen.
So far I’ve been unable to run a novel from North Korea down to earth. I hope to be able to find one from there, even if the voice is only that of the government. In the meantime, hopefully this will suffice, and it’s certainly a worthy work. I included Hwang Sok-Yong under North Korea (Ann Morgan equally reasonably counted him under South Korea), since the book deals with the North, the author worked hard for communication between the two nations (he was jailed for seven years by Seoul for travelling to the North without authorisation – which perhaps counts as having ‘lived’ there, if you’re feeling liberal, Gentle Reader?) and he has pulled off the neat trick of being published on both sides of the DMZ. As to where he was born, he neatly evaded the issue by being born in what was then Manchuria (now part of China), and before the country was divided (or rather between divisions, since Korea has spent much of its life divided into two or three countries).
Enough justification; how about the book?
‘The guest’ is on the one hand smallpox; also the foreign viruses Christianity and Communism; and Reverend Ryu Yosǒp, a Korean now living in the US, who visits North Korea after 40 years to face up to what his brother did in the Korean War. He was involved in a massacre between Christians and Communists that formed a sort of subplot within Korean War. This elder brother dies 3 days before he was due to leave for the reunion. Reverend Ryu Yosǒp goes instead.
It must be said that there can be a bit of a tendency among Koreans to blame foreigners for their troubles, not only in the North but to some extent also in the South – and not totally without justification. (Nor do the Koreans have this tendency to themselves). But author Hwang Sok-yong is at pains to show that no side is innocent in these troubles, and that there is a need for understanding and eventually some sort of catharsis. The author saw his novel as a sort of shamanistic exorcism ceremony (shamanism is still very big in South Korea), and there is still hope for reconciliation.
Of course Korea’s great tragedy is its division since the war, and the cruel way this has separated families, almost all of whom will never get the chance to reconnect. The Guest gave me a good feeling for the awkward dance that happens when one is lucky enough to be allowed to meet those left in the North, and what it feels like in general to be a Westerner on a tour in North Korea.
It’s not always an easy read (it can be confusing as to whose voice is speaking at the time) but its literary quality is very high. The author rightly considers it vital for every voice to be heard, in a sort of literary truth and reconciliation commission.
Considering the heavy personal price that the author had to pay for this book, and his brave attempt to build a bridge over a raging river, this is a vitally important book that needs to be read to understand the Korean psyche.
HWANG Sok-yong (1943 – ), The Guest, translated from Korean by Kyung-Ja Chun & Maya West, New York, Seven Stories Press, ISBN 978-1-58322-751-0
(originally published Taiwan 1993 and 1996)
Book 30: South Korea (English) – Please look after mother/mom = Omma rul put’akhae (SHIN Kyung-Sook)
It’s been one week since Mother went missing.
The family is gathered at your eldest brother Hyong-chol’s house, bouncing ideas off each other. You decide to make flyers and hand them out where Mother was last seen. The first thing to do, everyone agrees, is to draft a flyer. Of course, a flyer is an old-fashioned response to a crisis like this. But there are few things a missing person’s family can do, and the missing person is none other than your mother. All you can do is file a missing person report, search the area, ask passers-by if they have seen anyone who looks like her.
I wanted to read the Korean classic Taebaek sanmaek (The Taebek Mountains), but apparently and incredibly it has yet to be translated into English.
In any case, this lovely sad book is no doubt more accessible to the modern reader, and could be relevant to anyone, even from a less Confucian society than Korea. Like the best of world literature (for me at least), it is both universal and particular – it addresses issues in our common humanity, while at the same time giving us an intriguing peek into the door (which can never be fully opened) of another culture.
It is a heartbreakingly beautiful book. I promise it will tear at your heartstrings. It is written in the various voices of members of the family of a mother who has just gone missing when the novel opens and follow increasingly desperate stratagems to get her back. Along the way they learn a lot of surprises about her – for you can never fully know another human being, no matter how close they are.
I suspect you’ll never forget this book (written, unusually, in the second person – i.e. addressed to ‘you’). It is a real tear-jerker, in the best sense of the word. And it seemed to me appropriate to post on it on my own wonderful mother’s 90th birthday.
SHIN Kyung-Sook (1963 – ), Please look after Mother, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012 (2011, originally published in Korean 2008), ISBN 978-0-7538-2818-2