Unparalleled Insight into War: The Shadow of Arms by Hwang Sok-yong

  • onNovember 16, 2014
  • Vol.24 Summer 2014
  • byJ.T. Lichtenstein
The Shadow of Arms
Tr. Chun Kyung-ja

There is a line in the first few pages of Hwang Sok-yong’s The Shadow of Arms that carries with it the brunt of the Vietnam War: “Just two weeks of carnage, of thirst and heat had transformed the fighting men into burnt-out tin cans.”

Hwang’s language is unadorned and direct, his metaphor effective. It conveys a hollowness, of both body and spirit, that foreshadows the horrific military brutalities, the moral corruption, the soullessness wreaked by a hellish war and captured with staggering precision in the novel, based on Hwang’s experience as a Korean soldier contracted to fight for the Allied Forces.

A “burnt-out tin can” can also be used to describe a translation; a text that has lost its soul, has lost its voice, in the process of being rendered into a new language, and all that remains of it is an empty shell. We were loath to let that happen to The Shadow of Arms, and took great pains to find the novel’s voice in English, scouring military dictionaries, reading dialogue aloud, comparing our translation as it developed against the French version, even delaying publication several times for the sake of getting it right. As translators and publishers of literature in translation, we have a greater responsibility than perhaps we often realize; we are pulling foreign writers, usually comfortable and celebrated in their own countries, into our local literary landscapes, and we are determining how their voices shall sound in our language, how they shall be perceived and therefore received by our readers. It’s an untold burden, and one we shoulder gladly because these voices deserve, and sometimes need, to be heard. That of Hwang Sok-yong, as this novel exemplifies, is one that should resound the world over.

It is this Korean novel that grants us unparalleled insight into a war that has haunted the United States for decades.

We have grappled with our troubled history in countless Vietnam War memoirs and novels. And to a lesser extent, we have sought to comprehend our hand in a nation’s suffering in works by Vietnamese writers on the same subject. Only through Hwang’s detached perspective are we able to step back and understand the conflict with a clearer eye and within a greater context. The narrative, which follows a young Korean corporal on his assignment from the US Army to keep an eye on the black market that, as it becomes increasingly obvious, lies at the heart of all military and guerilla strategies, reveals the capitalist motives underpinning American involvement. We see morality drowning in greed, humanity in barbarity, duty in self-interest. We see a Vietnamese family torn apart by two brothers’ opposing loyalties, a love abandoned for love of country, an individual struggling to remain indifferent to the atrocities of a war that doesn’t directly concern him. And we see ourselves, as a nation that has committed horrendous acts, and more importantly, as human beings who, in the face of what we know to be wrong, must choose to remain indifferent and at a safe distance or get involved and put ourselves in the line of fire.

Those who choose to read translated works are curious about other peoples, perspectives, cultures, and lives beyond the borders of their own language. The paradox is that translations often shape our understanding of our own identities, plurality being the closest we will ever come to finding universality in the human experience. We read translated works because we are looking to know the other. In translation we read ourselves. Never has this argument been better made than with Hwang Sok-yong’s The Shadow of Arms. 


by J.T. Lichtenstein
Editor, Seven Stories Press


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.