Writers From the Other Asia
Of the two culprits that Hwang fingers at the outset of the novel, Christianity is perhaps the more surprising. Though it is difficult to recognize after fifty years of anti-religious policy, the present capital of North Korea, Pyongyang, was once known as the "Jerusalem of the East" for its concentration of churches and the fervor of its converts. When former guerrilla fighter Kim Il Sung began introducing Marxism in earnest in 1946, he strategically incorporated aspects of Christianity into the official political ideology and, later, into his personality cult (much as Christianity absorbed woman-centered pagan rituals into a Marian cult to gain adherents in medieval Europe). Between 1948 and 1950, during the undeclared war between North and South that preceded the Korean War, Christianity and Marxism battled each other for the soul of the peninsula.
Here The Guest departs from the official script. In the fall of 1950, the American army did not reach Sinchon in time to participate in any massacres. Instead, Koreans inflicted the damage on themselves. For a country accustomed to blaming others--the Chinese, the Japanese, the Americans--this history is not easy to swallow. Hwang, though, is comfortable in this role of truth-teller. His earlier fiction catalogued the human losses associated with Korea's economic miracle and its participation in the Vietnam War. He spent five years in jail for his unauthorized visit to the North. Now he is taking full advantage of the more liberal climate of free speech in the South and the warming of relations between the two halves of the peninsula to tell a story that will haunt even those who have no connection to the events described.
The Guest follows Ryu Yosop, a minister in a Korean-American community in Brooklyn, as he prepares to visit North Korea and the family he left behind as a young child. "Hometown" is a cherished concept in Korea. It is bound up not only in friendships and family relations but also in the rites of ancestor worship that have survived more than a century of Christian evangelism. For Yosop, though, his hometown conjures up decidedly mixed feelings: "The word started out with the scent of a mountain berry, lingering at the tip of one's tongue--but then the fragrance suddenly turned into the stench of rotting fish." He wants to visit his family--one of the millions of families divided by the Korean War--but he worries that his family background and religious affiliation will scotch his visa application. So he puts down the North Korean capital of Pyongyang as his birthplace on the visa form and trusts that somehow he will find his way back to Sinchon.
A few days before his flight, Yosop checks in with his older brother in New Jersey. A retired minister who has become practically a recluse in his suburban home, Yosop's brother doesn't want to talk about the old days. Yosop sees the visit to the North as an opportunity to confront the dimly remembered horrors of the past, to repent for sins and forgive those who sinned. Yosop's brother, whose memories are considerably more precise, disagrees. "Why should I beg for forgiveness," he angrily retorts. "I was on the side of Michael the archangel and those bastards were the beasts of the Apocalypse!"
Several days later, overwhelmed by guilt and anger, Yosop's older brother takes to his bed and quietly passes away. His stories, however, do not die with him. As Yosop makes his way to North Korea, he is visited by a succession of ghosts, including his brother's. These uninvited apparitions, yet another of the novel's guests, supply details about the blood-soaked days of 1950 and the events that Yosop had been too young to experience or fully understand.
With its supernatural events and chorus of spirits, The Guest would seem to belong to the tradition of magic realism. And like so much magic realism, it involves the remembrance of unspeakable atrocities. The novel that launched the genre, Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, revolves around a massacre of banana workers. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children draws its considerable power from the tragic partition that divided India from Pakistan. As a trauma can provoke a derangement of the senses, so can a terrible crime push a writer toward fabulism. It is as though conventional storytelling has become incapable of conveying the magnitude of atrocity.
Yet for all its affinities with García Márquez and Rushdie, The Guest's magical elements are faithful renditions of Korea's traditional shamanic culture. And when Yosop arrives in Pyongyang, what might appear to be magic realism turns out to be straight narration. Here, after all, is a country where the first leader, though dead, still occupies the highest office, where tens of thousands of young children perfectly synchronize their movements in mass games that celebrate the system, where a mammoth unfinished (and unfinishable) hotel dominates the cityscape and, like an embarrassing goiter, is pointedly ignored by guides and minders. North Korea is truly a land of "make-believe," as Hwang has remarked in interviews.