A Masterful Journey to the Past into History: The Old Garden by Hwang Sok-yong
- onNovember 9, 2014
- Vol.5 Autumn 2009
- byAnna Lui
- The Old Garden
Tr. Jay Oh 2009544pp.
Hwang Sok-yong is often referred to as Korea’s best candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but Hwang’s stories are about truly international characters. Oddly enough Seven Stories Press first learned about Korea’s leading author through his French publisher, Zulma. While editing The Old Garden, his tribute to South Korea’s democratic movement, I found myself checking the French translation and looking up German U-bahn stations, Russian towns, quotations from Bertolt Brecht and Käthe Kollwitz. The translator and I joked, "How many languages do you need to know to translate a Hwang Sok-yong novel?"
In the midst of today’s fast-paced, globalized world, America’s population remains overwhelmingly and stubbornly monolinguistic. This is especially tragic in terms of literature when one considers the imbalance between how many books are translated from English and how few are translated into English. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers and most talented writers remain unknown to Americans. And when Americans do peek beyond their borders, the stories they are exposed to are often reproductions of common perceptions. The Columbian writer writes about violence and crime in Bogotá; the Afghani writer about the repression of women in a Taliban-controlled village. Readers flock to these stories thinking they will gain entry into an exotic, cloistered world. But a post-9/11 world from the perspective of a Korean woman who marries a Muslim man in London? Or about how the fall of the Berlin Wall affects a Korean fighting for democracy in South Korea in the 1980s? These cultural permutations are unheard of. These are exactly the perspectives Hwang Sok-yong brings to light in his works Princess Bari and The Old Garden. His characters are Korean and his writing has been consistently inspired by the history of his country, but his characters don’t reside in isolation. They are world citizens who are powerfully affected by international politics and respond in kind. Perhaps that is a reflection of the author’s own ability to be a global citizen.
I first met Mr. Hwang in 2005. Gregarious and magnetic with an infectious grin, he was not what I expected from a man who had spent eight years in prison for violating Korea’s national security law. He quickly and easily became part of the Seven Stories family, giving big bear hugs, traveling to readings in the outer boroughs of New York with our publicist, and gladly staying at our publisher’s apartment and introducing him as “Dan, my publisher, and friend.” When Mr. Hwang visited again earlier this year, we were happy to see that he had kept himself very busy in the four intervening years. While the publishing industry is struggling to reinvent itself in a digital marketplace, Hwang Sok-yong merrily described his months writing a novel on his blog and responding to readers every night. In the same breath, he mentioned that he was organizing a peace train with North Korean novelist Hong Seok-jung and Nobel laureates Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio of France and Orhan Pamuk of Turkey.
Seven Stories Press has always been interested in sharing the story that no one else is telling and taking a chance on an author who is bringing a new dimension to a larger dialogue. That’s why Hwang Sok-yong is a perfect fit for us. At the same time, as the author of nine works of fiction, including several bestselling novels that have been made into successful films, no one can doubt his ability to tell a good story.
The Old Garden tells two tales of epic proportions: one is the tragic love story of the two narrators of the novel and the other is a country’s historical struggle for democracy. Against the dramatic backdrop of a period when students and factory workers set themselves on fire and bombed American cultural centers to protest a violent military dictatorship, Hyunwoo and Yoonhee meet and fall in love. Their affair is brief, but life-altering. It is not an exaggeration to call it Hwang Sok-yong’s Dr. Zhivago.
With several of his comrades already captured, Hyunwoo goes into hiding in the countryside with a young art teacher, Yoonhee. The two quickly build their own Eden, an oasis from the outside world, a peaceful garden in a harsh land, but Hyunwoo can’t help but think of his fallen comrades and their unfinished fight against Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship. Hyunwoo returns to Seoul, but is soon captured and sentenced to life in prison. Because they were never legally wed, Yoonhee is not allowed to see or correspond with Hyunwoo. It is only 18 years later, after Hyunwoo is released and Yoonhee has passed away, that Hyunwoo learns of their daughter.
I first became familiar with Hwang Sok-yong’s writing when we published The Guest, which graphically portrayed the littleknown story of a bloody confrontation between Christian and Communist neighbors. Mr. Hwang has compared the book to an exorcism, with ghosts airing their grievances. Violent, traumatic, and incredibly powerful, it was a painful and fascinating book to edit. When I heard that The Old Garden was a romance, I doubted that the same writer who could graphically portray the very worst in human nature, could also write convincingly about love. Yet I was proven wrong. The love between Hyunwoo and Yoonhee is honest and real, tender without falling into clichés. Hwang Sok-yong challenges the conventional image of a patient lady-inwaiting and a submissive Korean female by infusing Yoonhee with a fierce independence and a sharp, saucy tongue. Hyunwoo is never too far from her thoughts, but it doesn’t stop her from traveling the world, meeting and developing bonds with intriguing people, and being pulled into a bit of political organizing herself.
While their love story grounds the novel, the reader meets a cast of captivating characters. There is Youngtae, the awkward son of a tycoon, who earnestly (or as Yoonhee teases, “too earnestly”) works to spread the teachings of Marxism. There is Park, a struggling factory worker who Hyunwoo befriends. There is Mari, Yoonhee’s neighbor in Berlin, a lonely drunk who becomes Yoonhee’s unlikely counselor. There is Heesoo, a Korean ex-pat in Germany who is a gentle balm to Yoonhee’s heart for a little while. Their stories and struggles shed light on an incredible era.
Growing up Chinese-American, my studies in history have always been skewed through the lenses of two global superpowers. For most Americans, our knowledge of Korea is limited to the Korean War and the current threats of North Korea’s nuclear plans. It was a surprise to me when I learned that, according to a poll conducted by Seoul National University, an overwhelming number of Koreans cited the Gwangju Massacre, not the Korean War, as the greatest tragedy in Korea’s modern history. I am incredibly grateful to know the writings of Hwang Sok-yong and, through him, to be introduced to this chapter in Korean history, and to recognize the lives that were shaped by it.
* Anna Lui is rights director of Seven Stories Press.