- onOctober 17, 2016
- Vol.33 Autumn 2016
- byKim Hoon
- Black Island
Tr. Jung Ha-yun 2011416pp.
Black Island: Between Heaven and Earth
In the kingdom of Joseon in the 19th century, Catholicism was a dangerous religion. The Neo-Confucian ruling elite viewed the faith as subversive to the feudal social order and converts faced deadly consequences: Over the course of the century, more than 10,000 men and women lost their lives on charges of heresy.
Kim Hoon’s novel Black Island is set against the backdrop of the Catholic Persecution of 1801, the first in a series of cruel suppressive measures that continued for a century until Joseon’s demise, in the end, under imperialist aggression by the foreign powers of the East and the West.
The novel centers on three brothers from the prominent and reform-minded Jeong family, who saw hope for the future of Joseon’s feudal aristocracy in the Christian view of the world. When the three brothers are arrested, however, they each choose different paths: While the eldest Yak-jong dies for his faith, Yakjeon and Yak-yong choose to live by abandoning Catholicism.
Black Island opens as one of the surviving brothers, Jeong Yak-jeon, sets out on his journey to serve his banishment sentence on the remote island of Heuksan. As he builds a new life for himself on the island—where he would remain until his death, of natural causes, fifteen years later—he confronts the choice that he has made, a choice that he, in the end, views as human, in the most contradictory and complicated sense of the word.
Rich in cultural and historical detail, the narrative is a grand polyphony of myriad voices, bringing history to life through the characters that lived it, from the power-thirsty Queen Dowager, to the slave horseman torn between his duties, his freedom and his faith.
The drama that unfolds in the novel is one between martyrs and betrayers, dreamers and survivors, refugees and their pursuers, and at the same time, one between cultures, and between worldviews.
“It is not my goal to argue about justice through words or letters,” writes Kim Hoon in his afterword to the novel, “I simply hope to say a few things about human pain, grief and hope. I would only be able to say very little. Therefore I fear, and suffer for, those who bled their way towards that distant yet definite world, one that cannot be explained by words or letters. It is here that I live.”
The first excerpt that follows is from Chapter 1, depicting Jeong Yak-jeon’s torture and trial at the State Tribunal; and the second excerpt is from Chapter 3, which introduces to the readers Manori, a lowborn horseman who soon emerges as a major character in the story.
by Jung Ha-yun
Graduate School of Translation & Interpretation
Ewha Womans University
From Chapter 1: Noble Scholar
Said the kingdom’s subjects who had been flogged, that if you were summoned for a flogging, you should crush a beehive and down it with a shot of soju a day before so the impact of the beating would spread evenly across your body, making it less painful, or, for a similar effect, drink the clear juice of radish kimchi mixed with dried horse dung powder: Every flogged man had something different to say.
Leaving the grounds after the flogging, paste big flat slices of hot bean curd onto the wounds, or rub the wounds with a mixture of a young first-time mother’s breast milk and her menstrual blood, to stop blood extravasation and restore marrow in broken bones, some also said, but again, claims varied from village to village. If the flogging continued for over three or four strikes, they said, your butthole would tear and start leaking stool water, and in order to lessen the pain, you should not tighten your hole but open it wide and let out as much fluid as possible. With stool water and blood and bits of flesh splattering in every direction, the officer holding up his wooden stick would take a step back to avoid the mess, and the added distance would help lessen the pain, said those who had received flogging, to those on their way to be flogged.