Every Wednesday since January 1992, an indefatigable group of halmonis (Korean for “grandmothers”) in their 70s and 80s have led a rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. More than half a century after being forcibly conscripted as sexual slaves by the Japanese Army during World War II,
these former “comfort women” demand a formal apology and monetary compensation from Korea’s colonizer. Even though the United Nations Human Rights Committee is finally conducting a long-delayed investigation (it has been more than a decade since the first comfort women came forward in the eighties), Japan has yet to give in on either demand. And to this day, most of the historical documentation of this tragedy of war remains undisclosed–in Japan as well as the other countries that took part in the Pacific campaign.
Korean-American author Chang-rae Lee adds to the growing, but limited, body of fiction on the exploitation of thousands of women by the Japanese military, of which Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman (1997) and Paul West’s The Tent of Orange Mist (1995, set in China) are notable. These authors’ fictional retelling of the plight of the comfort women guarantees that their stories will not be forgotten, as much as the Japanese government may want them to be. Stifled memories about one woman in particular haunt the septuagenarian narrator of Lee’s wondrous second novel, A Gesture Life. Franklin “Doc” Hata, a “retired supplier of home medical goods, expatriate and war veteran and now suburban lap swimmer nonpareil,” has led a seemingly exemplary life in the affluent New York City bedroom community of Bedley Run. But after an accidental fire at Hata’s precious, stately Tudor Revival home–his physical manifestation of the American Dream–the past begins to prey upon the former Japanese Imperial Army medic, after almost an entire lifetime spent forgetting.
In Lee’s acclaimed Native Speaker (1995), second-generation Korean-American Henry Park discovers the common experience of every immigrant: “When I get here, I work. I work for the day I will finally work for myself. I work so hard that one day I end up forgetting the person I am. I forget my wife, my son. Now, too, I have lost my old mother tongue. And I forget the ancestral graves I have left on a hillside of a faraway land, the loneliest stones that each year go unblessed.” Loss and suppression are benchmarks of A Gesture Life as well, as Lee expertly reveals in the intertwining narratives of the faux doctor’s two most important relationships–that with his adopted, mixed-race daughter, Sunny, and the aristocratic Kkutaeh, the Korean comfort woman he tried to protect in a remote Second World War outpost in Burma.
Hata has spent his life in a state of self-imposed virtual amnesia–from denying his birth as a member of Japan’s outcaste class (the burakumin) in the ghettos of the southwestern harbor town of Kobe to his love for Bedley Run widow Mary Burns (“the sort of person who was always kinder to people than they were to her”), whom he never married and let die of cancer without ever saying goodbye. He even tries to put his own daughter out of his mind after, as a teenager, she leaves town in a cloud of disrepute: “I wanted to hide the real depth of the trouble, put it away not (as Sunny always contended) for the sake of my reputation or standing but so I could try to forget she was my daughter, that she had ever come to live with me and had grown up before my eyes.” For Hata is the ultimate outsider, whose ethnic Korean tanner father and ragmaid mother gave him up to the wealthy Japanese Kurohata family in hopes of a better life for their only son. Even with his newly found pedigree, he can never shake the stigmatization of his outcaste birth–from the overt discrimination he experiences during adolescence, in which classmates treat him no better than a “stray dog,” and through more subtle means, which Lee hints at, during his service in the army. The opprobrium even follows Hata to the United States after the war, albeit in a self-imposed, internalized form, despite his accumulation of all the totems of success.
Hata’s “gesture life” begins in his pre-adolescent years, as he quickly learns the means of fitting into Japan’s rigid society–the mastery of the formal customs required of a member of an esteemed family. A life of honor and duty, however, also proves to be an affliction. Hata realizes only in his waning Bedley Run existence that “this happy blend of familiarity and homeyness and what must be belonging is strangely beginning to disturb me.” His cold-blooded, berating army superior recognizes Hata’s almost-fatal flaw early on: “You…too much depend upon generous fate and gesture. There is no internal possession, no embodiment,” as does Sunny, later: “All I’ve ever seen is how careful you are with everything. With our fancy big house and this store and all the customers. How you sweep the sidewalk and nice-talk to the other shopkeepers. You make a whole life out of gestures and politeness.”
At the time of the fire, which opens the novel, Hata finds himself revered but alone in his realtor’s dream of dark wood, leaded glass, flagstones and flower beds. It’s been ten years since he last spoke to his daughter and three since his retirement from the medical-supply business, as good ol’ Doc Hata makes his daily rounds of his increasingly snotty town. Redemption comes in the form of the first real friendships he’s had since the war–realtor Liv Crawford pulls him out of his smoldering living room, hospital supply clerk Renny Banerjee visits him daily and bright-faced candy striper Veronica Como instills hope in his dimming heart. But it’s Sunny’s (and her son’s) return to upper Westchester County that makes her father “wonder if something like love is forever victorious, truly conquering all, or if there are those who, like me, remain somehow whole and sovereign, still live unvanquished.”
Lee’s spare, careful and strangely poetic style suits the guarded speech of his genteel narrator, whether he is imparting rationalizations or revelations about his life. Many have compared Lee’s gift of understatement to that of Kazuo Ishiguro–especially in Remains of the Day, in which courtly Stevens, the elderly British butler, recounts his life of service–or even Yukio Mishima, whose quiescent passages describe the most violent of scenes at the climax of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea. Lee achieves a measure of Mishima’s skill in conveying the horror of Hata’s wartime flashback scenes, which reverberate throughout the rest of this finely crafted novel. “Although it was the most naive and vacant of notions to think that anyone would willingly give herself to such a fate, like everyone else I had assumed the girls had indeed been ‘volunteers,’ as they were always called. To the men in the queue, they were nothing, or less than nothing.” Unlike his comrades, Hata understands what nothingness feels like, for he had emerged “from the twisty, cramped ghetto alleys.” He also shares a mother tongue with the comfort woman he is ordered to look after, Kkutaeh, or K, as he comes to call her (the consonant used by Kafka), although his rough slang contrasts sharply with her more educated, mellifluous speech. “K” has learned to make herself “in some measure disappear” in order to deal with her sad fate. The young Korean-Japanese soldier she befriends takes this lesson of self-effacement to heart in leading a life of carefully manicured habits: “I feel I have not really been living anywhere or anytime, not for the future and not in the past and not at all of-the-moment, but rather in the lonely dream of an oblivion, the nothing-of-nothing drift from one pulse-beat to the next, which is really the most bloodless marking-out, automatic and involuntary.”
As Hata confronts and learns to live with the ghost of K, he does, in the end, “pass through with something more than a gesture life, a decorous existence of sign and shadow,” and finally lets himself feel the “modest, pure joy” of life that he had previously avoided–something just as simple as holding his grandson’s hand. Perhaps one day soon the tireless women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul will achieve some measure of redemption as well.