Writers From the Other Asia
When Yosop eventually makes it to Sinchon and his surviving relatives, the tenor of the novel changes. The carefully constructed North Korean reality of Pyongyang, with its fixed itinerary of sights and sites, gives way to a very different world. Here, in the countryside, North Koreans let down their guard. They become real characters, rather than the brainwashed automatons of the "totalitarian" model. Yosop's family reunion is accompanied by tears, accusations, explanations. As we move deeper into the reconstructed events of 1950, Hwang resists shifting the narrative to the past in order to dramatize the action. Instead, he allows a chorus of the living and the dead to step up to the microphone and testify, as if at some celestial truth and reconciliation commission. No single narrative can capture the truth of the past, Hwang suggests. We are reduced to sifting through an array of often contradictory first-person accounts.
The witnesses tell Yosop of how, in the wake of MacArthur's pivotal landing at Inchon in mid-September 1950, a Christian paramilitary in Sinchon worked clandestinely with an anti-Communist youth corps from the South to seize the county administration from the Communists. These men of God show no mercy. "In the beginning, there is no rape," one ghost relates. "Far from it. Many times, after a kill, the young men stand together in a circle to pray together." Later, as the body count mounts, there is time for neither prayer nor proscriptions against rape. When the Communist Party cadres regroup and regain control, their vengeance is equally unsparing. The wounded are shot on the spot. Prisoners are lined up against the wall and executed. Young men are dragged into military service against their will and then, when the fortunes of war shift and they fall into "enemy" hands, they are killed as surely as the true believers.
By the time The Guest reaches the atrocity in the air-raid shelter, the question of culpability is almost beside the point. The war has become a swirl of thrust and counterthrust, and the reader can be forgiven for losing track of who has done what to whom. So much blood has been spilled, and it has stained all hands. But in Sinchon, those hands are all Korean. The Americans, for their overall stage management, barely qualify as accomplices. After the dust has settled and permanent battle lines have been drawn, the exigencies of nationalism and group psychology have reduced this complex tale of revenge to simple anti-Americanism. The Americans, after all, were responsible for a great number of atrocities in the war, so why not add a few more in the interests of smoothing the path toward eventual Korean reunification?
A novel that so closely follows historical fact raises the question: How much literary license has Hwang taken? I asked Bruce Cumings, the foremost American historian of the Korean War and another visitor to the Sinchon site. Hwang's take is plausible and convincing, he told me.
The Guest is worthwhile not only for its heterodox version of Korean history and its intriguing portrait of North Korean society. It is a finely rendered work of fiction--disturbing yet somehow beautiful. Hwang's achievement should resonate long after the controversies over its illumination of one dark corner of the Korean War subside.