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

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Special Edition 2011
  • byKim Hoon

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 the real heroes.

Kim Joo-Young's autobiographical novels including A Skate Fish (Munidang, 1998) and Anchovy (Munidang, 2002), are concerned with a boy's recollection of simple individuals far removed from the grand narratives of history. These two novels contain accounts of a wife awaiting her husband's return, and a boy who longs to meet his missing sister and mother. The author himself says he wrote these novels from reflections on his childhood, so calling them personal rather than collective historical fiction is appropriate. How can one reproduce individual, rather than collective, memories?

A Skate Fish opens with a somewhat dreamy atmosphere of snow falling on a mountain village, focusing on the extremely confined space of a house with just a mother and son. Historical background is irrelevant in this cramped space, where time itself appears to have stopped. The characters in the story wait endlessly for someone to arrive. Kim simplified the temporal and spatial background, characters, and narrative events so he could focus in detail on the individual psychology of longing. The epic narrative known as history inevitably confuses chronological relationships with causal ones, leading to cases in which falsehoods are accepted as truths. At the same time, history makes the mistake of erasing personal, fragmentary, and sensory memories from our collective remembrance. The stories of the humble characters in Kim Joo-Young's novels were written to combat such an epic version of history.

What is the reason author Kim Hoon evoked Admiral Yi Sun-shin, who perished in battle? Kim Hoon began his career as a reporter on the Arts beat. His first novel, Song of the Sword, begins with the following lines: "I didn't feel that any contemporary values were worthy... I decided to get rid of all my pity for mankind." In April 1597, Yi Sun-shin was released by the High Crimes Tribunal to serve as a common conscript in the navy. Roughly two years later he would die in the sea battle of Noryangjin. Kim's novel covers this two-year period in Yi's life, focusing on a realistic portrayal of the battles and events narrated transparently from Yi's first-person perspective. Song of the Sword disregarded the historical background and ideological circumstances of the times to focus solely on portraying the chilly inner world of a man confined to the battlefield, constantly facing the meaning of life and death. Kim's distinctive style is characterized by a terse dry prose and impressive sensory depictions that reject all ideology and symbolism. Kim's first work reflected this worldview verbatim. By rejecting all contemporary values, Kim was able to comprehend the remarkable world of Yi Sun-shin, a historical figure who immersed himself in battle, the world of life and death.

The history that Kim evokes in the story, a history of war (Admiral Yi's and Kim Hoon's war), is an empty one. The novel doesn't rewrite history so much as it chooses not to write about it. Kim was able to penetrate to the essence of Admiral Yi's personal Nanjung-ilgi (Wartime Diary); the story he subsequently wrote was like his own personal diary. That the story of Admiral Yi Sun-shin was told by Kim is both coincidental and inevitable. One gets the sense that it was not Kim who sought out Yi Sun-shin to present Kim's worldview, but Yi who sought out Kim. They were destined to meet and resemble one other.

Kim Takhwan's The Banggakbon Murder Case (Minumsa, 2003) is classified as a historical mystery novel in which history and fiction meet as equals. This story, set during the reign of King Jeongjo of the Joseon era, recounts in the mystery format the attempts of the White Pagoda faction including Park Ji-won, Hong Dae-yong, Yi Deok-mu, Kim Hong-do, and others to join the Kyujanggak (Joseon Royal Library). The dreams, ambitions, and political limitations of the White Pagoda faction recounted in the story can be found in the politics of modern Korean society. The characters are all real historical figures that have been recalled to the present to create an entertaining tale, but at the same time the author raises thoughtful issues and stimulates interest in Korea's past through the use of the mystery novel genre. Novels use historical facts to create entertaining stories, but it could be said that historical fiction ultimately serves to reproduce history.

What are historical novels? In the novels we've looked at, while historical fiction sheds new light on past events, in the end they illuminate the relationship between remembrance and forgetting, the meaning of human existence, and the role of novels themselves.



1. Le chant du sabre
Kim Hoon, Gallimard, 2006

2. Sardellen
Kim Joo-Young, Peperkorn, 2007

3. 洪魚
Kim Joo-Young, 上海译文出版社, 2008

4. The Heroic Age (2 Volumes)
Yi Mun-yol, Minumsa Publishing Group
1984, 386pp., ISBN 8937400359 (Vol. 1)

5. Les Romans Meurtriers
Kim Takhwan, Éditions Philippe Picquier, 2010