The LARB Korea Blog is currently featuring selections from The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress that attempts to provide a concise history, and understanding, of Korean literature as represented in translation. You can find links to previous selections at the end of the post.
Having followed Korean literature through the false dawn of the liberation period in the previous chapter, and now we arrive at the Korean War. But here there is an unexpected turn, because we don’t find what we might expect. A “war gap” quickly becomes apparent to a foreign reader, at least in translation: Korean literature seems to jump from stories having to do with the issues of colonization to stories having to do with the issues of separation, overlooking the battles and strategy between. What seems obviously missing is the kind of epic, romantic, gritty, or even comic literature on the war itself, or even on any of its battles.
If there is a Korean version of Catch-22, Band of Brothers, or The Naked and the Dead, it has escaped translation up to this point. Instead, the narrative hops over particular issues of the war itself and into the schisms that resulted from the fighting. This is true even when soldiers are represented in actual war zones: rather than being involved in military battles, they are most often in battle with each other, or with their own implacable fate. One other element that ties the stories together is that they often take place in extremely isolated locations, with participants suspended in a kind of social and military amber.
Although we have passed World War II already, before moving on to the Korean War it we must name-check one of Korea’s most beloved modern authors (and one familiar to Korea Blog readers), Cho Chongnae (also romanized as Jo Jong-rae). Cho represents the second world war in his partially historically accurate and thoroughly amazing How in Heaven’s Name, which tells the story of a Korean soldier impressed into the Japanese Army then successively captured by the Soviets, Germans, and Allies and pressed into military service by all but the latter. Transported from Korea to Manchuria to outside Moscow to a German prison camp to the beaches of Normandy and finally to the United States, this hapless soldier all the while dreams of home, mom, and presumably kimchi as he moves further and further away from them. (Those further interested in this story might consider watching the Korean movie My Way.)
Beyond that, Korean WWII fiction is sparse to non-existent, likely because the war was I now way a Korean one. About to the Korean War much more is written, but again, very little about acts of war themselves. Yun Heung-gil’s The Rainy Spell, which immediately became a Korean classic in 1978, focuses on a family with two grandmothers and their shared grandson in the third grade. The grandmothers agree to live together, but when the war comes, one grandmother’s son fights for the South while the other grandmother’s son joins the Northern guerillas. The family splits apart when the “Southern” son is killed by North Korean soldiers. The young grandson, giving in to the lure of chocolate, reveals to secret police that the “Northern” son has been in his grandparents’ house, and at this point the entire family comes under state suspicion.
The surviving (guerrilla) brother is shortly captured and it is strongly implied that he is killed. This drives his mother nearly mad, and after a visit to a shaman she comes to believe that he will return to the house on a day the shaman has predicted. Instead, a massive snake appears: the paternal grandmother passes out in shock, but the maternal grandmother soothes the snake and persuades it to leave. This event fits a shamanistic narrative — the snake is the spirit of the dead son, given snakes’ powerful role in Korean mythology both as animals and as shapeshifters — and the grandmothers re-unify over this event, although one dies shortly thereafter. (The introduction to this story exemplifies how the Korean War, as a matter of grand scale, seems largely left out of translations into English.)
Non-Koreans who read Korean wartime stories in translation often note that the stories are typically vignettes of participants in the war: these include such works as Hwang Sun-Won’s Cranes, in which two old friends on opposite sides are brought together during battle. Unusually, the story ends on a note of grace and nostalgia. Other stories depict the effects of the war on a particular family: Lim Chul Woo’s With Her Oil Lamp on That Night, a classic mid-century Korean weeper, combines hopeless images of separation with a semi-clichéd one, though also a slightly ambiguous one, of the circle of life.
The story opens with a soldier in a dwindling company of rebels up in the hills outside the town in which he was raised. The town has been emptied by government decree, but he suddenly sees a light there: a light is lit by his mother, who has come back to town on the anniversary of her husband’s death secretly hoping to see her son. While in her home, she prepares an offering for her dead husband. In the meantime, the government has become aware of the mother’s presence in town and sets up an ambush in case any rebels should try to enter. The dominoes of the plot to meet begin to fall, and a predictable tragedy unspools.
Another work that at least takes place as the result of a specific battle is Hwang Sun-won’s Retreat, set at the time of a battle, but a battle raging elsewhere: when the wounded Captain Choo actually hears firing, he estimates it to be “not less than sixteen kilometers” away. Hwang tells of Captain Choo and two privates’ attempt to “retreat” to their own lines. Only Choo has a weapon, and one of the privates quite openly hopes he will use it to do the “right thing” and kill himself, thus unburdening the unwounded soldiers. Instead, in an ending that may be either metaphorical or realistic, Choo and the private who stays mostly loyal to him do, in fact, seem to end up finding safety in the form of a man, his home, and a barking dog.
So while 100 percent in the war, Retreat‘s plot has absolutely nothing to do with the war itself, a condition that has merely put them in the situation they are in, put the bullet into Choo’s leg, put them all in a state of retreat. While none of this would have occurred without the outbreak of the war, the war, like the nature of Korean social relationships, is simply taken as a given — something barely worth noting, while the personal relationships form the core of the work.
Another kind of work about the war explores it through the outlines of the damage it caused afterwards. These include novels like Trees on a Slope and Evening Glow and a wide range of short stories including “A Stray Bullet” and the very similarly named “Slow Bullet,” which updates some of the themes noted here to the Vietnam War. These deal with the massive economic, political, and psychological (what we might today call PTSD-causing) effects of the war. But in some ways the war itself, the actual “thing” upon which all successive literature hinges, is the proverbial elephant in the room: massive, impossible to ignore, and yet in a sense completely overlooked without so much as a mention of what actually split the country.
This lacuna exists at least three reasons. First, the war technically never ended, and consequently still cannot be summarized as concluded. Second, and with a similar effect, without a “winning” side to write the history books or literature, no story of war can be mapped out with an ending point. Combine these first two and you arrive at the argument of critic Kim Byong-ik, who writes that “the Korean War is an event, the inclusion of which in history has to be rejected by Korean writers,” and that as “ an unhealed inner wound it should be an object of consideration that is continuously evoked as a present concern.”
The third point may be a bit more controversial: that Korea itself did not feel responsible for the war, and even when it was represented metaphorically, as in such touching stories as Ha Geun-Chan’s The Suffering of Two Generations, that suffering was typically represented as imposed externally, just another aspect of the han to which Koreans would be, and are, subject. Simple, quiet, and sad, the book, as one critic in a back-cover blurb, is the classic “bridge” story (and it even features am actual bridge as part of that notion).
The story begins with the introduction of Mando, a simple man missing an arm from a wound suffered during WWII, on a journey to meet his son Jinsu who is returning from the Korean war. He plans to meet his son at the station and return home for a celebratory dinner, but as is often true in Korean fiction, things don’t go as Mando might expect, and he and Jinsu’s trip back home is difficult, though it ends in a symbolic gesture that is both sad and optimistic and reflects the idea that fate is imposed upon Koreans rather than achieved by them. (This kind of story is well-represented in pre-2000 collections, including those published by UNESCO and Jimoondang, as well as a variety of one-offs.)
The Korean War, and the partisanship both before and after it, has left a deep wound in Korea’s history, one deeply reflected in the literature that followed. The 38th parallel now marks the Demilitarized Zone, the split between North and South Korea. This division has been one of the most important themes in Korean literature, and as soon as that division was formalized, Korean fiction turned to the notion of division itself as a main source of inspiration.
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Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.