Writers From the Other Asia
The preoccupations of The Guest are not peculiar to Hwang Sok-Yong. Pak Wanso, one of Korea's most celebrated postwar women authors, tells a very similar story in "Mother's Hitching Post" in the new collection Modern Korean Fiction, translated by Kim Miza and Suzanne Crowder Han. The guilt-ridden relationship of the two brothers in Hwang's novel is transposed in Pak's 1980 story onto a mother and daughter. Now in her 80s, the mother has repressed a horrifying memory from the Korean War, when she was fleeing with her children from war-ravaged Seoul. Her son, conscripted into the North Korean army, has deserted. The mother cannot save him from the cat-and-mouse games of the North Korean officer who discovers the family. Nor, when the son dies at the hands of the officer, can she bury him properly in the family's burial ground, which lies over the border in the North. While the suppressed guilt destroys Yosop's brother in The Guest, the mother in Pak's story manages to relieve some of her burden by revealing the painful memories to her daughter.
Koreans call this experience of suppressed guilt and suffering han. The epiphany of the traditional short story in the Western canon can often be found in Korean fiction in the cathartic unburdening of han. Though painful, it is a powerful source of creative energy. Writers who explore the theme of collective oppression and its psychological consequences, from the Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki to Toni Morrison, would have no difficulty translating han into their own tongues.
The tragedies of Korea are not confined simply to times of war. The short stories in Modern Korean Fiction are full of the language of hunger and sickness, of the poverty of workers and farmers. The stories from the colonial period are particularly poignant, published as they were under difficult circumstances. Between 1919, when the Japanese authorities brutally suppressed a national uprising, and the late 1930s, when the colonial administration imposed Japanese culture and a forced labor system, Koreans were granted a measure of breathing room. During this interregnum, characterized by the more ordinary debasements of colonial rule, Korean writers were still able to place short stories in the daily newspapers. Even as late as 1938, Ch'ae Man-shik could publish in a Seoul daily his satiric story "My Innocent Uncle," about an oafish collaborator with the Japanese.
In the 1930s, too, Yom Sang-seop published what is considered one of the masterpieces of early modern Korean fiction, Three Generations, which recently appeared in a new translation by Yu Young-nan. Far from describing the atrocities of Japanese rule, Yom's novel depicts a stultified society in which the old depart from Confucian values and the young cannot build a new world for themselves. Several characters engage in an almost halfhearted conspiracy against the colonial authorities and inevitably fail. A father who fails to honor his ancestors or set a proper example for his son is brought low by his misdeeds. Characters speak to one another with a bluntness that seems awkward when set against, for instance, the Japanese aesthetic of indirection. The structure of the novel is uneven, the prose unremarkable. Nevertheless, in its way, Three Generations successfully portrays a society throttled by the "modernization" that Japan inflicted upon the peninsula. This delayed development, as much as the more violent policies of the era, constituted the tragedy of the colonial experience.