War and Memory; The Testimony of History and the Healing of Wounds

For Korean Writers, the Korean War was witness and confession. For these writers, the war was both a handicap to their growth as well as what sustained it.

 

The Korean War has served as a source of writing for many novelists. Numerous writers including Park Wansuh, Park Kyung-Ri, Choi In-hun, Jo Jung-Rae, Yi Mun-yol, and Kim Won Il, developed their fiction by using the Korean War as a motif. The war has been characterized as a “tragic fratricidal war,” a “war of national liberation,” and as a “proxy war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union,” depending on one’s political stance. For Korean writers, however, the war was not a complete memory that could be represented merely by a certain political position. While the war was long over, for the writers, its memory has been an everlasting experience in the present.

In The Market And Battlefield, Park Kyung-Ri, the author of Land, describes the psychology of someone who has survived the ruins of war as follows: “Until now, no one had publicly criticized the Korean army or the Republic of Korea. The refugees silently witnessed the battles, during which they did not offer any opinions because they were wise.” For those who did not truly support either side, the goal of survival determined their choice for, since the tide of war could turn at any moment, they didn’t know to whom they might end up begging for food. For so many they had no choice but to vacillate between the two sides depending on the tide of the war; war was not an ideological battle but a battle for survival.

In a scene from her novel Near Buddha, Park Wansuh depicts the birth of literature on the battlefield for survival. The first-person narrator, who has experienced the death of her brother, describes the war as the source of her writing: “The death I have endured still lay in the center of my interior, and interferes with my daily life like an extra weight or a migraine. The desire to tell this story drove me crazy. How could I make sure that they would listen to my story till the end? How could I entertain them? How could I earn their sympathy? In my free time, I put together every aspect of my story, even adapting it to the surmised tastes of my audience. Before I knew it, I was turning my story into a novel. I writhed in agony as if I were vomiting, feeling relieved as if I’d vomited.” Not even a day has passed since the brother’s death, but the narrator’s family takes his corpse out of the house simply because they are concerned it might rot. The same family wolfs down all the remaining red bean porridge only because they are concerned that it might spoil; the memory of this incident turns into a lingering indigestion that plagues the author, and the pain eventually transforms into a novel that pours out like vomit.

In A House with a Deep Yard, the memory of being forced into becoming the head of a fatherless family in the ruins of war takes shape in the hands of the author Kim Won Il. The mother of the novel’s protagonist, however, makes no effort to console her oldest son who has had to drop out of school to sell newspapers on the streets. The narrator said, “As I walked into the house shivering like a little mouse, my mother saw me but didn’t say anything. Though I have dropped out of school unlike other kids – I mean, my own sister and brother still go to school – how could Mother not try to offer me any solace? As I muttered these thoughts to myself, my eyes grew moist with grief.” As the son’s toils grow worse, his mother continues to push and discipline him even more harshly into becoming a decent human being. For Kim, the war was a memory of violence that forced a boy into becoming the head of a household before his time. It was a process of enduring “the absence of a father” and an occasion for self-negation, which prompted him to question whether he was his mother’s biological son.

 


1 The Heroic Age
Yi Mun-yol, Minumsa, 2000, 386pp., ISBN 89-374-0036-7 03810
2 Taebaek Mountain Range
Jo Jung-Rae, Hainaim Publishing Co., Ltd. 2008, 342pp., ISBN 978-89-7337-794-7
3 Land
Park Kyung-Ri, Nanam Publishing House. 2002, 419pp., ISBN 89-300-0701-5
4 The Square
Choi In-hun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd. 2003, 342pp., ISBN 89-320-0848-5
5 A House with a Deep Yard
Kim Won Il, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd. 2007, 292pp, ISBN 89-320-1012-9

 

The perversion of the maternal in the absence of the father is also featured in Yi Mun-yol’s novels. Yi’s family, who suffered for decades after his father crossed over into North Korea, never experienced the ordinary every day. His autobiographical novel The Heroic Age portrays the sharp ideological conflict and tension of battlefields. Although his novel presents fundamental human conflicts behind the choice between “here” and “there,” he was welcome neither “here” nor “there.” Even 50 years after the end of the war, Yi still has not forgotten the pain he suffered because of The Heroic Age. Yi said “Our time was not a time when it was possible to remain neutral. The way to do so was to side with both ideologies; that possibility was decisively convoluted beginning with The Heroic Age. I suffered abuse from both sides. When the novel was first printed, the Defense Security Command censors kept it from being sold for two months. Thro...