And Then There Were None: One Person by Kim Soom

  • onMarch 26, 2019
  • Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • byWilliam Wetherall (Yosha Bunko)
ひとり (One Person)
Tr. Oka Hiromi

It seems it now came down to one person. There were two persons, but last night, one of them departed this world.

Her fingers, quietly folding a blanket, were numb. She had heard a report just a month ago that one person of three persons had departed this world, and it had come down to two persons. The orange blanket had faded and is nearly apricot.

She finishes folding the blanket and puts it in the corner, and brushes the floor with her hand. Gathering the dust and lint, dandruff, and sheddings of white hair in the palm of her hand, she compressed it together and, vacantly, whispered:

Here another one person remains alive . . .

. . .

In no time the bus raced along the big street. She cast her gaze beyond the window, and at length she realized:

That Even now it is still terrifying (*312).

Her 13-year-old self is even now in the camp in Manchuria (*313).

This is an English translation of the opening and closing scenes of translator Oka Hiromi’s Hitori (2018), a close Japanese translation of Kim Soom’s novel Han Myeong (2016). The titles in both languages mean “one person”—the most important phrase in the book. Its singularity signifies that every witness of history has the voice of “one person,” whether alone or as a member of a recognized community of “one persons”—or han myeong-deul, as the literary critic Park Hye-Kyung pluralized the phrase in his commentary in the 11th printing of the Korean edition (September 2018). The equivalent Japanese plural would be hitori-tachi.

The first scene introduces the two “one persons” who figure most in the story. The first one person is the “last one person” left among the officially counted comfort women in the Republic of Korea. By the end she is in a hospital, still hoping to hear “that one word,” which may or may not allow her to forgive her assailants and tormentors. The second “one person” is the “she” protagonist, who in the last scene is on her way to meet the known “last one person” and join her among the officially counted—aware that there may be others like her, but knowing that someday there will be none.

The narrative is a patchwork of the heroine’s memories of the brutality she experienced and witnessed as a comfort woman in Manchuria from the late 1930s to 1945, and the life she has led since then while keeping her memories to herself. Few pages turn without a graphic recollection of rape, torture, suffering, or death sourced to cited testimonies. The heroine has heard on television that there were 200,000 comfort women of which only 20,000 survived in 1945. Kim, in her afterword, states these figures as facts.

Kim formulated the experiences of her fictional comfort women from the testimonies of actual comfort women, most of them Koreans. The heroine is thus a composite of many comfort women. The italicized phrases in the above English translation are shown in Gothic (sans serif) fonts in the Korean and Japanese editions. Such phrases represent citations from published and unpublished testimonies. Citations 312 and 313 are attributed to remarks made by an Indonesian woman and a Chinese woman during a 2013 KBS television feature on former comfort women. The Korean edition has 316 such citation notes, three more than the Japanese translation, which has 71 marginal notes in lieu of the 10 footnotes in the original.

Kim appears to hope that her novel will be read as an artifact of history. A note immediately before the opening scene describes the work as a fictional reconstruction of the testimonies of “former Japan military comfort women victims” (the Korean edition says only “comfort women grandmothers”). Readers will have to decide whether the story, set in the future and sympathetic to the comfort women redress movement, qualifies as historical fiction or fictional history.

A random on-site survey of over twenty bookstores throughout Japan by friends of this reviewer turned up only one copy of Hitori—on the Korean literature shelf in the Asian literature section of a large bookstore in Fukuoka, which has protested the comfort women memorial near the Japanese consulate in Busan, a sister city. San-Ichi Shobō, the publisher, told this reviewer in January 2019 that it still had copies from the first 1,000 printings it released in September 2018. About 3,500 publishers vie for attention in roughly 14,000 bookstores in Japan, and there has been little publicity. The University of Hawai’i Press will be publishing an English translation by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton under the title One Left.

by William Wetherall (Yosha Bunko)
Writer, Translator
“Stomping on Aboji” by Oda Makoto (1998)

Author's Profile

Kim Soom has published thirteen novels, most recently When Has a Soldier Wanted to Be an Angel? (2018) and Sublime is Looking Inward (2018), the third and fourth novels in her Comfort Women series, and six short story collections. She has received the Yi Sang Literary Award, Hyundae Literary Award, Daesan Literary Award, Heo Gyun Literary Award, and the Tong-ni Literature Prize. One Left (2016), the first novel in her Comfort Woman series, was translated and published in Japan in 2018. Her story "Divorce" is out from Strangers Press, UK as part of their Yeoyu Korean Literature series (2019)