The Past Told in the Present: 1987 by Ha Chang-soo

  • onOctober 27, 2014
  • Vol.20 Summer 2013
  • byCho Kang-sok

Is 1987 another “after-the-fact” novel? Most likely not. Like many historical novels, this book is set in a certain time period; it, however, does not prescribe to the rules of the genre. Unlike most historical novels, in which the main goal of the narrative is to historicize the past with a belated insight into past events, 1987 is told in the present tense. In other words, the author focuses more on dramatic mimesis instead of a narrative mimesis. But while the ordinary dramatic mimesis is akin to an omniscient narrator, 1987 uses the present tense to tell the entire sequence of events that takes place for all the diverse characters that were involved in the historical events beginning with the colonial period up to the 1990s. Why is that? Perhaps it is the author’s intention to show how this kind of mimesis is a crucial device in disclosing the internal structure of modern Korean history as well as the relationships of the different characters that serve an important purpose in the latter half of the book.

The theme of this novel is revealed in the dialogue of the protagonists, such as the writer, Yun Wan, and the detective, Min Young-hu, who assert how life, society, ideology, history, and art need to be recreated by literature in order to be rendered meaningful to humankind. That seems to be the most important message of the book. But what will determine the success or failure of this book depends on not how the author has framed this idea but on what kind of mimesis he resorted to. To sum, the author has chosen the more effective present tense means of mimesis that offers a moral lesson to be learned, rather than creating distance from the historical events. He does this all while delineating the events through an omniscient point of view. By way of a synchronic method of presenting the matrix of human relations rather than the cause and effect relationships in Korean modern history, the author has successfully presented his perspective. Ha Chang-soo was a promising young writer in the late 1980s who had received much attention from the literary establishment of Korea, and he has returned once more with a powerful book. 

Author's Profile

Ha Chang-soo is a writer. Born in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province in 1960, he made his literary debut in 1987 when his novella "Cheongsanyugam" won the Munye Joongang Literary Award for Best First Novel. He is the author of the short story collections Picking Daffodils and The Man Who Passed Through Thirty Gates, and the novels Trap, People Who Don’t Turn Around, and 1987. He is also the recipient of the Hankook Daily Literary Award.