A Profound Union of Ethics and Aesthetics

  • onMarch 10, 2016
  • Vol.31 Spring 2016
  • byHwang Sok-yong

In truth, presenting a timeline of Hwang Sokyong’s life would be a sufficient introduction to his literature. Although no one can choose the time period they are born, few live in their given time with such depth. Hwang’s life and literature manifest what pushes forth from the deepest and most painful places in recent Korean history. The latter is explosive and entangled between the division of the peninsula and the compressions of modernity. The violent flow of this history might have altered course due to the great resistance against oppressive regimes and the hardships that accompanied them, but literature has played a continuous role in embracing and meditating upon issues deeper and broader than physical struggles. As literary critic Jin Jeong Seok writes, “Hwang’s novels are the most true, ethical participation with the Korean people’s modern experience, as well as the most fierce artistic investigation into the question of ‘How can a person set themselves free?’ In Hwang Sok-yong, modern Korean literature has found the complete profound union of emotion and awakening, imagination and historical consciousness, ethics and aesthetics.”

It is easy to list the places where Hwang’s novels take an emotional hold over us and evoke admiration. His work shows a piercing authorial insight into the truths and contradictions of an era— deep and strong empathy for those who have been uprooted and have lived through marginalization and deprivation in the shadow cast by modernization. In doing so, Hwang also shows a comprehensive understanding of human psychological predicaments, the various trivialities of humanity, and much, much more. However, we must not forget that these aspects of Hwang’s literature are only possible due to his solid sense of aesthetics along with an experimental style and structure to his stories that have been apparent from the beginning of his career. When looking at what he accomplished with his early works such as “Far from Home,” “Mr. Han’s Chronicle,” “The Road to Sampo,” and “A Dream of Good Fortune,” we behold what is often said to be the height of “mature realism.” Hwang’s short stories make use of his strong and concise writing style to achieve maximum poetic feeling and emotion by capturing the objectivity of the third-person perspective, having vibrant descriptions, strong narrative, and pathos for deprived people. This is the true meaning of “realism.” If you take a closer look, however, from around this point in time, his novels reveal a writer in search of a way to separate from the modern Western model of the novel through the freedom of his words, the pacing of the sentences, and the rhythm that links the narrative.

“Mr. Han’s Chronicle,” for instance, depicts one man’s tragic life as it is destroyed by the terrible ordeal of the partition of Korea. The story ends from the perspective of the main character, the daughter of Han Yeongdeok, a doctor who fled south, named Han Hyeja. “Han Hyeja was born from the union of an alcoholic doctor who fled south and the war widow of a police officer kidnapped to the north. When this girl was fully grown she went by the nickname ‘Wild Melon.’ A small and sturdy fruit that tenaciously sprouts from human excrement and grows in the wastelands amongst the weeds. But people who have experienced separation and lived the lives their new relationships have forged can only accept a child born when all hope has been tossed aside as a joke from their previous lives.” Skipping over the pressure of tragedy, Hwang innovates a completely new sentence rhythm for the times that summarizes the old and new through experience, relationships, and “jokes.” This depth of heart shows that even from the narrative framing, Hwang is demanding a freer and more creative style. In accordance with this, the story ends with this scene: “The funeral has finished, and now father is buried so deep in the ground that even his soul won’t be able to roam. (...) Hyeja took the paper lantern and blew out the almost completely melted candle. Even though it was still too early for the first train, she ran all the way to the station.” Right before showing a scene of preemptive and serious “modernity,” Hwang’s novel predicts the inherent time and form of this land enduring and overcoming its historical tragedies.

However, after Hwang completed Jang Gilsan and The Shadow of Arms in the eighties, he reflected upon the “narrow scope” of realism as a form and, as he entered the 2000s, he began to actively affix his name to the freedom of “poetic narrative” that puts “content” over “form.” While he was doing this, he worked tirelessly as a public intellectual to get justice for the victims of the government crackdown on the May 18th Gwangju Democratization Movement. He visited North Korea and went into exile, and through his subsequent imprisonment showed his opposition to the contradictions of the Korean division and the world order that enforces it. This nearly ten-year “break” was time spent making his perspective on reality and literary effort even more accessible and flexible. After his return to writing with The Old Garden, an emotional story of the 1980s democratization movement’s human dignity and the scars left behind, he has continued to produce a stream of masterpieces. In particular, novels that use traditional Korean narrative forms, such as the “Chinogwi Exorcism of Hwanghae Province,” “The Story of Shim Cheong,” and “Baridegi Shamanistic Folktale,” in a creative way.

The publication of the trilogy of novels The GuestShim Cheong, and Princess Bari are the result of the author’s long exploration of the aesthetic form. Of course, this trilogy did not stop at simply recreating the narrative form. Hwang uses this new style to address critical historical events and real issues that cross the boundaries of the Korean peninsula, such as the horrors of foreign modernity trespassing in the North (The Guest), the suffering of the East Asian peoples in the modern transitional period (Shim Cheong), and the destructive shadow of globalization as intensified by separation and conflict (Princess Bari). In a similar vein, Hwang’s recent work, The Sound of the Shallow Water, has the author projecting his own destiny onto the life of the storyteller Lee Shin-Tong, who dreams of the dawn of civilization in the modern period of awakening. This novel has reached a fully developed stage of perfection that encompasses history and humanity to their utmost. As such, Hwang Sok-yong’s literature continues to be in the present progressive form. 


by Jung Hongsoo
Literary Critic