Hwang Sok-Yong (trans. Chun Kyun-Ja and Maya West)
Seven Stories Press, 2007
I first encountered Hwang Sok-Yong at the 2009 PEN World Voices International Literary Festival, wherein I had the pleasure of attending two of his readings, one of which was on The Guest
(the other on Seven Stories Press' forthcoming English translation of The Old Garden
). Mr. Hwang would stroll to the front of the stage, his quiet presence muting conversation in the crowd (you could just feel
he was a man with something to say), and speak to us in Korean. A companion would translate his thoughtful phrases, and then he would step into the shadow of the stage as the translator read an excerpt. Whether or not Hwang understands English I do not know (each time he left too quickly for me to meet him), but perhaps he understood the rhythm and tone of the translators’ voices as they read his works—his eyes glistened from the shadows, an aura of quiet grace emanating from his wizened face.
And wizened, no doubt. Hwang has seen some crazy things in life, and we are richer for his experiences. He was in Beijing for the Tiananmen Square massacre, saw the wall fall in Berlin, no doubt witnessed the horrors of war in his home country, and has been imprisoned for visiting North Korea to promote an artistic exchange. Those are facts, but I also bet he is a man who has won and lost in the game of love too… the tell-tale raw emotions from such encounters ooze from his writings.
So here we have a reflection of the Korean War, a war that Americans participated in heavily, but which I have very little knowledge. I know even less of the tragic Korean experience of the bloody conflict. I thank Hwang for shedding light on what appears to me now, a truly horrific, bestial, savage moment in history. Hwang does an excellent job of building suspense by littering the first half of the book with allusions to the horrors of the Korean War (between Koreans, Americans hardly figure into the story). Half way through the book I was quite sure the Korean War was a detestable affair, and that perhaps Hwang was personally touched by the events. The allusions were sufficient; I cared not to delve into nitty- gritty details of atrocities caused by one side or the other. Like it or not, however, Hwang delivers the brutality poignantly. Like a train wreck, I could not help but marvel at the cruelty:
“The mothers will be too content if we allow them to stay with their children,” said the brutes. “Tear them apart at once, and lock them up separately! Let the mothers go mad with worry, calling for their little ones, and let the children die crying for their mothers,” declared the beasts. Brandishing their swords and guns, the murderers tore the children from the bosoms of their mothers, who fought desperately to keep them. They locked the babes up in a different storage building. The heart rendering cries of the children calling for their mothers and the pitiable wailing of the mothers asking for their children—it was all too much. Hungry for blood, the fiendish monsters poured gasoline and straw over the heads of the surviving women and children and set them on fire, and then, as if they hadn’t already done enough, they threw in grenades. In these two storage buildings alone, 910 innocents, including 400 women and 102 children, were slaughtered in cold blood.
The Guest is quietly compelling, haunting even. Hwang’s literary trick of jumping from one narrator (i.e. character) and perspective (first and third) to another in subsequent paragraphs with no forewarning to the reader certainly kept me on my toes. This was used to great effect in chapter 8, “Requiem,” where the back and forth first person (Korean) accounts provide not only a clever, enjoyable narrative, but also serves to remind the reader there are at least two sides to every story. This chapter in particular reminded me of Lazar Stojanovic’s short, brutal documentary, The Skorpions: a matter of fact exposition of ethnic cleansing in the recent Serbian conflict. What Stojanovic was able to capture on film Hwang is able to weave with words. Distressing, to say the least.
Moreover, The Guest, underscored sentiments normally glossed over in American treatments of the Korean War. All sides (North Koreans, South Koreans, Communists, Christians, and Americans) were guilty of committing the worst crimes. Nobody is innocent in war, a point driven home by one veteran who screamed, “Show me one soul who wasn’t to blame!”
With reminders of the horrors of war (what is it good for, really?) tucked away in all corners of our small world, it’s a wonder we can find time to laugh and persevere. The Guest is an important work; that it has been translated into English now makes it a more influential piece. War is universally a hellish experience. The more reminders we have of its debasing influence, the more, hopefully, we will be swayed to avoid its downward spiral.
But also in war, no matter where, appeals for its end are universal too. One elderly character reflecting on the war she somehow survived laments: “I want nothing. Peace on earth, glory in heaven—that’s what’s on my mind. Even if the world is filled with sin, we human beings should just try to get rid of it a little at a time as we live our lives.”
July 5, 2009