History & Memory: What History Has Forgotten, Novels Have Remembered

What happens at the meeting of history and the novel? In the sense that both depend on memory and imagination to varying degrees, they tell the same story: a fiction. Memory and imagination play an important role as subjects and tools in historiography and writing novels. In formal historiography, fragments of memories are gathered together to become a collective memory. Putting together personal, fleeting memories to create a plausible story requires the judgment of a historian, but also imagination and ideology.

Novels rely more on personal rather than collective memory. In this sense, perhaps the origins of fiction are forgotten stories; stories that have faded from the collective memory have a chance to be retold as personal remembrances, thanks to novels. Regardless of whether novels contain collective or personal memories, the moment these are recorded on paper, they become a fiction that can no longer be recreated by recollection alone. Novel writing is such a task. Therefore novels try to recreate the things that history—even time—has forgotten, by trying to recall these memories through the act of writing. It is an impossible and repetitive task. At a fundamental level, novels strive not to forget such things as personal, fleeting, and sensory memories. The key point is that history has forgotten the memories known as novels, while novels recollect what history has relegated to oblivion.

Fiction challenges history to be more imaginative and to remember more. If that is the case, then what are historical novels? We often consider historical novels to be novels that freely borrow various historical elements as needed; however, true historical novels restore history without using it at all. When certain historical facts akin to fictional fixed truths enter a story, what is the author's intent and intended effect? Earlier we said that novels remember what history has forgotten, and this applies to specific historical events as well.

Whether placed at a specific point in time or over periods of time, novels play a role of monitoring history's forgetfulness. When certain historical events continue to call out to us from the pages of novels, the implication is that we are not yet able to let them go because their scars have yet to heal. Some novels lend a voice to those who have suffered. By allowing the silent victims of history to speak on their behalf, by letting us hear their vivid voices, novels can serve to heal and enlighten. By picking at wounds stitched up before being properly treated, novels attempt to fully treat our pain. When some historical event is repeatedly conjured up in novels, it implies that a wound remains with us, one much too deep and grievous to treat.

As novels redeem the past, they gain the ability to save our present as well as our future. When fiction evokes historical events, however, it does not have to do so in a heavy and sober fashion. In some cases, historical fiction can be a literary detour or kind of laboratory. While surveying the rather short history of Korean fiction, one discovers the well-known fact that during chaotic periods in Korean history, many authors began writing historical novels. Although some historical fiction used the past as a medium for opining on the future direction of the present day, other works chose historical eras far removed from the present to avoid conflict with dominant ideologies. Writing history anew had been a way to reveal the fallacies of memory, but now this act has gone further, enabling people to enjoy the inventions of writing itself. While some novels redeem history, some parts of history serve as great fiction.

What kinds of historical novels have Koreans read up till now? Yi Mun-yol's The Heroic Age (Minumsa, 1984) recounts the contemporary and modern history of Korea, including the Korean War, our most gruesome historical tragedy. In those pages, he gave voice to the fallen many. The tragedy of the fratricidal war befell the stateless and was brought about by neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union, but by the mirage of ideology. In this novel, Dong-young, a strict adherent to socialist realism, sacrifices his widowed mother, wife, and four children to his lofty ideals. But who are the perpetrators, and who are the victims? At the end of the novel, Dong-young becomes enamored with the idea of death while his wife Jung-in falls into another notion known as religion. They are all just victims of ideology.

Yi Mun-yol's The Heroic Age shows that the Korean War was a tragedy that ultimately caused people to cease being human on their own accord. More accurately, human history is one of humans sacrificed to ideology. Throughout all of human history, there has been but one hero: the illusion of ideology itself. In his youth, author Yi Mun-yol considered the Korean War to be the most visible example of humans sacrificed to ideology, and decided to write a novel about this period. While doing so, the author perhaps dreamed about an age when humans, not ideology, would become t...


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