The Guest

  • onNovember 10, 2014
  • Vol.1 Autumn 2008
  • byHwang Sok-yong
The Guest
Tr. Kyung-Ja Chun

Through the entangled past of three brothers, The Guest explores the wounds and deep suffering that people endured during the Korean War and during Korean modern history at large. The Guest was serialized in the Hankook Ilbo from October 2000 to March 2001. The following excerpt is from chapters 10 and 11 out of 12 chapters.


Burning the Clothes

SETTING OUT FROM his uncle’s place in Some, Yosŏp and the guide climbed into the car and headed towards town. Cautiously, Yosŏp asked the guide in the front seat, “Would it be possible to drop by Ch’ansaemgol on the way?”

“There’s someplace else you want to go, too?”

The guide grimaced, glancing at his wristwatch. “We’ve got to be at the hotel by lunchtime.”

“I was just wondering if we could have a quick look at the place as we pass through...” “I say, Reverend, you sure do have a lot of requests.”

“I’m just curious to see if the place I used to call home is still the way it was back then.” “It won’t be anything like the old days-everything’s been changed by the introduction of the cooperative system.” “I’d be happy just to get a glimpse of the hill behind the village.”

The guide laughed.

“We have no way of even knowing where Ch’ansaem is.” “It’s in the Onchŏn township, so it’ll be on the corner as we drive up.”

At that, the guide consented quite readily, saying, “Oh, well, if that’s the case, you can just tell us where to go.”

Just as they had a few days earlier, they drove along the town’s paved roads and empty streets. As they reached the outskirts of town and the rice paddies began to stretch out before them on either side, an open field ringed by the ridges of low mountains came into view in the distance. The orchard was exactly where it had been all those years ago. Standing along the ridges were the apple trees. Each fruit was ripening at its own pace, countless different shades of apples peeking through the green leaves. “That’s it right over there. Just stop at the corner of that road for a minute, please.”

Stalks of corn lined the road, swaying back and forth in the autumn wind. Two-story duplexes made of gray brick stood at identical intervals along the hillside, surrounded by the orchard. Yosŏp was amazed to see that the village that had seemed so spacious to him as a child actually took up no more space than a small corner of the low hill. The levee where Yosŏp used to take the cow to graze had, at some point, been transformed into a cement embankment. Only the starwort blossoming by the cornfields was still the same. The tiny little flowers still seemed to be laughing out loud in the wind. Yosŏp stood there for a moment, looking up at the vast expanse of sky, then took the clothes out of the bundle he’d brought out with him from the car. The guide, who’d been smoking a cigarette off to the side, came up to him.

“What have you got there?”

“It belonged to my brother,” Yosŏp replied, waving his brother’s old underwear at the guide. “I promised my sister-in-law that I would help put some of her demons to rest.”

“Ah, you brought them with you from Sariwŏn.”

Yosŏp started off along the old levee path, cutting through the cornfields up to the base of the hill.

The guide, having no idea what was going on, followed close behind. Avoiding the areas that were choked with weeds, Yosŏp chose a sunny spot where the dirt was visibly dry and crouched down to the ground. He reached down and gathered a handful of dirt.

“What are you doing?”

The guide seemed confused as he followed Yosŏp’s gaze towards the patch of bare earth. Yosŏp answered him with a question of his own.

“You have a lighter, don’t you?”

Apparently still unable to grasp what was going on, the baffled guide took out his lighter and handed it over to Yosŏp. Collecting a small pile of dry twigs from here and there, Yosŏp heaped them together and set the tiny pyre ablaze. The twigs flared up, crackling loudly. Above the flame, Yosŏp held the underwear that Big Brother Yohan had used to deliver his son Tanyŏl. The cloth fibers curled up, distorted, and the edges of the garment began to turn black, rapidly burning inwards. Holding it in his hand, Yosŏp turned the cloth over the flame, slowly, a bit at a time, so as to burn it all the way through. When all that remained was a square of cloth about the size of his palm, Yosŏp tossed the whole thing atop the miniature bonfire. It shriveled up and disappeared instantly.

Moving over, Yosŏp began to dig a small hole in the ground. After he scooped out several handfuls of dirt, the consistency of the soil became damp and mixed with leaves. He continued digging, and about a handspan further down, the soil became soft, pink, and tender.

After sorting out all the little pebbles and patting the bottom of the hole down to make it firm, Yosŏp took out the leather pouch he’d been keeping on him. Untying it, he took out the tojang-shaped sliver of bone that had once belonged to his brother and placed it in the hole.

He filled it back up with dirt. Just as one might do to put a baby to sleep, he kept patting the little mound of dirt that was left.

You’re home now, Big Brother, were the words Yosŏp wanted to say out loud.



Matrix of Spirits



THE WIND BLOWS HARD. All the grass on the hillside is flattened in one direction; the tips of the blades tremble violently, as if they are being washed away by a powerful ocean current. Particles of dirt smash themselves against his face and earlobes as the wind pushes against his chest and thighs. Even the crows can’t seem to fly properly. They flap their wings over and over but eventually, the moment they pause for even the briefest instant, they plummet towards the ground. The crows fall, but just as they are about to graze the earth they suddenly soar back up into the sky and disappear, flying swiftly in the opposite direction like a piece of paper blowing away in the wind. Their thin, naked branches shivering, the trees scream.

A long line of people, hunched over at the waist, all move in one direction. They look as if they are each dragging something extremely heavy behind them.

The endless parade has no visible beginning or end.

A winding path passes through the field, leading up into a faraway lavender mountain ridge. They do not speak. From here, only their backs are visible.

The sun is setting. Clouds soaked in twilight flow past. Just like the birds blown away by the wind, the clouds, too, stream backwards into oblivion. The reddish skies darken, and the moon rises like a piece of cloth in faded indigo. Under the moonlight, the parade of people moves on, making slow progress. The high, steep path up the mountain ends at the peak. He can see the stripe of river etched in white and the lights of the village far below.

Like a bird, he soars up and over the scene. Below him a series of hills and a thin stream race by. He hears the cows moo in the distance and hears the hens cackle as they lay their eggs. He hears the people in the paddies, singing as they plant next year’s rice crop. The fast beating of drums is superimposed on the buoyant, metallic sound of cymbals. He hears the mother call to her children.

Kids, time to eat.

* * *

Once again, Reverend Ryu Yosŏp woke up from another early morning dream. It wasn’t time to go yet.

He pulled the curtains open and looked out the window at the deserted streets. The streetlamps remained unlit; Pyongyang was still covered in darkness. In the apartment complex across the road, though, several lights were on_ around the middle and towards the top of the building. Has someone gotten up already to get ready for work?

A car drove by, slowly, along the empty road. He gazed at himself as he was, reflected dimly on the windowpane.

It was the face of the most familiar man in his whole world.

Author's Profile

Hwang Sok-yong was born in Changchun, Manchuria in 1943. After the liberation from Japanese occupation, he moved to his mother’s hometown Pyongyang, where he lived with his mother’s side of the family. In 1947, his family moved to the South and he grew up in Yeongdeungpo. Hwang left Kyungbok High School in 1962 and left home to wander the southern provinces. He returned home in October, and in November of that year he won the New Author Literary Prize from the magazine Sasanggye for his short story, “Near the Marking Stone.” Hwang lived life as a drifter, taking up manual labor and temple jobs until 1970 when his short story “The Pagoda” won the Chosun Ilbo New Writer’s Contest and he began his writing career in earnest. He also participated in the Vietnam War.

Throughout the 1970s, Hwang Sok-yong published a continuous stream of works that became well known such as “Far from Home,” “Mr. Han’s Chronicle,”“The Road to Sampo,” and “A Dream of Good Fortune,” becoming a foremost author in the Korean literary world. For the duration of the seventies, he went undercover working at the Guro Industrial Complex and took part in the resistance movement through his membership in the Association of Writers for Actualized Freedom while penning his epic novel, Jang Gilsan.

In the 1980s, Hwang completed his full-length novel, The Shadow of Arms, which shines light on the capitalistic world system during the Vietnam War. He did this all while working tirelessly to organize the fight to spread the truth about the Gwangju Democratization Movement as well as a variety of other resistance movements. After visiting North Korea in March 1989, Hwang was unable to return to South Korea and took refuge as an invited author at the Berlin Academy of Arts. In 1991, he continued his exile in New York. After returning to South Korea in 1993, he was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released in 1998 after serving five of those years. Following this, he has shown year after year that his creative spirit will not die with the publication of The Old Garden (2000), The Guest (2001), Shim Cheong (2003), Princess Bari (2007), Hesperus (2008), Gangnam Dream (2010), A Familiar World (2011), The Sound of the Shallow Water (2012), and Dusk (2015). He has been awarded the Manhae Literature Prize, the Lee San Literature Prize, and the Daesan Literary Award, among others. Hwang’s major works have been translated and published around the world in countries such as France, the US, Italy, and Sweden.