On My Twentieth-Century Trilogy

  • onMarch 10, 2016
  • Vol.31 Spring 2016
  • byHwang Sok-yong

I was born in 1943 in Changchun, Manchuria—an area that was occupied by imperial Japan at the time. Around the time of my birth, the fascist powers-that-be had been driven out by the strategic cooperation of the socialist and capitalist camps. Throughout the world, the nations that had favored direct rule and the tenets of imperialism gave every sign of backing off. In point of fact, however, these countries remained chained, militarily speaking, to the politics and economy of their former suzerain states.

In our country, America took the position that had formerly been held by Japan. As was already the case in many countries in Latin America and Asia, revolution, the Cold War, military dictatorship, poverty, civil war, and oppression came to represent life for much of the Second and Third Worlds during this time. Upon Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule, my family was living in the North, in the city of Pyongyang. It was only when the political administration that favored the division of North and South came into power that my father was given a job and we all moved down south. As soon as I entered elementary school, the Korean War erupted around us and with it, the skeleton of the Cold War infrastructure that Europe imposed upon Asia finally reached completion.

The administration of the South, having set forth anti-communism and pro-Americanism as its most basic ideology, soon metamorphosed into a military dictatorship following the onset and resolution of several crises. The first show of resistance to this regime came in the form of the “Student Revolution”on April 19th, 1960. I, too, participated in this

demonstration. My generation became the first to grow up hidden behind the backs of adults, peeking out at the horror of a race of people bent on killing one another. We were the first to reach adolescence and find ourselves ready to take the establishment head-on. We were called the “April 19 Generation,” and, at times, the “Korean Generation,” a testament to our role as the first generation to be educated in our native tongue after liberation from the Japanese. Our generation was also the first of the modern age to have grown up with the goal of achieving a universal democratic state and overthrowing the Cold War-imposed division of North and South as an intrinsic facet of our very identity.

During my college years I fought against the military regime over issues such as the Korean-Japanese Summit of 1965, and when I was called upon to serve my term of mandatory military service, I found myself dragged off to fight in the Vietnam War. As to the real difference between the generation of our fathers—recruited and drafted into service by the Japanese to further their aspirations of Asian dominance—and our generation, packed off to Vietnam to help realize America’s Cold War dreams of instituting a Pax-Americana in Southeast Asia? We ourselves have no idea.

Upon my return from Vietnam and my discharge from military service, I reentered the Korean literary community and found myself face to face with the effects of the military regime. Working in factories and rural communities, I began to actively take part in the nation-wide popular movements, which led to my participation in the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement. This incident was soon followed by similar popular movements for democratization in countries such as the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Burma, and Indonesia: in essence, what the sixties were to the West, the eighties were for Asia.

In the aftermath of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, I left Korea to attend “The Third World Cultural Festival,” which was held in Berlin. I then began to work towards founding a cultural organization for Koreans living abroad, visiting countries like Germany, America, and Japan. During the course of these activities I met a number of Korean political figures in exile. As a part of this process, I had the occasion to visit North Korea. For this, I was to experience exile and imprisonment.

More than sixty years have now passed since the Korean War, and even after two meetings of the South-North Summit, we are still unable to identify the exact nature of this war. This is because we remain divided, maintaining what is not peace but a truce.


The Shadow of Arms

It was in the eighties, in the midst of this maelstrom of change, that I published the work that would mark the end of the first half of my literary career: The Shadow of Arms.

Unlike Hollywood films and novels that deal with the Vietnam War, The Shadow of Arms has nothing to offer to the genre of struggling with life and death on the battlefield; its pages contain no humanitarian conflict, no ideological protest against the war. Nor is it a mix of colonialism and Orientalism in the tradition of Apocalypse Now, presenting a detached but darkly emotional condemnation of war itself. The Shadow of Arms is a cold-hearted novel that deals instead with the business aspects of what was an intrinsically capitalistic war.

War is nothing more than a fiercely violent reaction to a conflict between different races, nations, and/or classes that is guaranteed to either solve or exponentially aggravate the issue at hand. Without question, war results in the appearance of a hell on earth, full of destruction and slaughter. On the other hand, this hell is accompanied by the emergence and activation of an extremely dispassionate, precise mechanism of political and economical logic. The Shadow of Arms is an attempt to reveal both the surface appearance and inner workings of this very phenomenon. America’s “intervention” in Vietnam, which came on the heels of their activities in the Philippines, was simply a move calculated to expand America’s imperialistic market control to include the rest of Southeast Asia, and war was considered to be the quickest, most efficient means of achieving this end: in essence, a business conducted on a rather grandiose scale.

As such, The Shadow of Arms uses the back-alley black markets of the Vietnam War as its stage, a market that turns into a setting more fitting than any jungle to discover and explore the core of the war. The more we learn about the system that was used to circulate US Army munitions, the closer we can come to understanding the true nature of the war. Because achieving this understanding became my overarching goal, it was necessary for the perspective of the story itself to be multilateral. In this novel, we see the perspective of the US government and soldiers, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, the South Vietnamese under American rule, and the “psychological refugees” who refuse to intervene and become a part of the war, searching endlessly for an escape route instead. Lastly, we have the perspective that overlaps with that of the author: the dazed ROK soldier who has somehow become involved in this foul war.

In the preface to the first publication of The Shadow of Arms, I wrote that I would “never indulge in the depiction of an individual who was scarred”by the Vietnam experience. This was a manifestation of the obstinate self-consciousness that is controlled by the guilt we Koreans feel in our treatment of the Vietnamese, a substantial limitation that was difficult to overcome with only the perspective of an irresponsible outsider.

Truly, if there is one thing that must make a deeper impression upon the hearts of the Vietnamese than the victorious outcome of their war for independence, it can be nothing other than the painful memories of all they lost in order to achieve that very victory.


The Old Garden

For five years I drifted around Berlin and New York. Upon my return to Korea, I was arrested for violating the National Security Law and spent the next five years of my life in prison. Those ten years given over to wandering and imprisonment, from my late forties through my early fifties, changed me; the world I once knew changed as well.

Through my numerous visits to the North during my exile, I was able to witness a face of the country’s division that was as different as the far side of the moon. As the downfall of socialism led to the reorganization of the capitalist world order, I was wandering about Germany and America. It was during the five years of confinement that followed that I was able to ruminate over and come to terms with the experience as a whole. And with that, I was reborn as a“different author.”

The Old Garden is a title I obtained from ancient Eastern legends that refer to a beautiful garden nestled within a hidden valley and a dreamlike island paradise. In actuality, however, the title is meant less as a positive literary allusion and more as a kind of utopian paradox. Watching the changing world from Berlin, my home in exile, I whispered to myself: “The revolution is over. It’s a new beginning.”

Since 1998, the year I was released from prison, the end of the century during which I wrote this novel, the world of today has reached a point where we must face bitter disillusionment.

Even now, the environment is being mercilessly destroyed, local and civil wars are waged according to religion and race, and anti-terrorism, like terrorism, has become a banner under which we can justify sweeping across the world in order to attain hegemony. The so-called Second and Third Worlds still suffer through the cycle of dictatorship, resistance, and despair, constantly struggling with fearsome enemies such as poverty and hunger. Since the fall of socialism, the world’s capitalist infrastructure has had the stage to itself; now, as common sense begins to reveal symptoms of an uneasy end, we find ourselves investing our expectations in an uncertain future.

In divided Korea, the resistance against the military regime in the South and, more specifically, the democratization movements of the seventies and eighties did succeed in making some changes, at least for the time being. Despite this, however, the fact remains that the onset of the nineties brought with it the inevitable conflict between the passionate beliefs of the past and the daily life of the metamorphosed present. In whatever form, this conflict tore at the body and soul of those involved. The danger here only deepened with the extinction of ideology that followed the collapse of the socialist states, only worsening with each regurgitation of what was lost.

The Old Garden is a “love story.” It is a love story, however, not because of any overly romantic tendencies on my part, but because the inevitably separate lives of a man and a woman living in this era of crises was the best possible frame for me to express the thoughts I have outlined above.

With this novel, I cast aside the realism of the past. Instead, a man and a woman in love each declare their own innermost thoughts and feelings, and the time that passes is recorded in a confessional style.

Each character’s inner world meddles with and severs the story’s organic synthesis; these inner worlds also visit the real world at different points and at different times. To begin with, the two axes of narration which should, from the perspective of a linear chronology, match up from beginning to end, is instead related in two distinctly insular, first person voices that form a pair of parallel storylines. Since eighteen years ofthe female’s narrative takes place while the male character is in prison and the receipt of certain letters and diaries only occurs after the death of the sender/writer, a spatial and temporal distance is created that serves to further segregate and sever the characters’different realities. The Old Garden boasts a form that encompasses every perspective: each character’s own writing and thoughts make up the first person perspective; the words and actions of others within their individual realities constitute the second person perspective; and lastly, the reader who studies each of these characters and their individual worlds provides the third person perspective. In this way, the love story of The Old Garden is perfected through the act of reading it.

The two characters’ inability to meet eventually becomes an intrinsic limitation of the narrative form: as Oh’s experiences in prison and Yoon Hee’s bitter trials and travails in the outside world are read separately, a conflict arises. It then becomes apparent that this disruptive conflict is the inevitable outcome of an individual’s past participation in the reform movement, and, as such, a part of life that must now be dispassionately accepted as a historical setback.

Due to the limitations of earthly time, the progress of the historical truth that keeps humanity alive becomes separated from any symbols of vested significance in that it is only ever experienced in a belated fashion. It is impossible to overestimate the value of our ability to tolerate the passage of time, supreme on this earth, and our possession of a memory capable of recognizing the things that “twinkle within the dust of this mundane world.”


The Guest

I began work on The Guest in 2000, which was the fiftieth anniversary of the Korean War. The September 11th attacks occurred a year after The Guest was first published; the onset of this new “Age of Terror” and the inclusion of North Korea in the so-called “Axis of Evil,” along with the threat of a whole new war, made our position clearer than ever. It was a chilling experience to realize that, despite the collapse of the Cold War infrastructure that had been formed during the Korean War, our small peninsula was still bound by the fragile chains of war.

I first conceived of The Guest during my exile in Berlin. There, I witnessed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which was really the beginning of the dissolution of the Cold War system. In the pages of the notebook I kept during those years, I found the following passage:

The “realistic” narrative form of the past needs to be broken down and reconstructed into a bolder, richer style. It is in the moments we let slip by and the traces of those moments that have accumulated that take part in history itself and, like a dream, drift past us in our daily lives. History and the individual dreamlike day-to-day existence are joined; I believe they must be linked together in the realm of reality. Subjectivity and objectivity should not be separated from each other, and the narrator should not be limited to one perspective; neither the first, second, nor third person. A narrative voice that travels between the perspectives of each of the characters intersecting each other is likely to be more effective at conveying the essence of reality. Even with one character and one event, the diverse thoughts and perspectives of all the other characters could be employed to illustrate the scene akin to an elaborate embroidery technique involving many different  colors of thread. Though an objective narrative voice can give a plausible depiction of events, reproducing a slice of life and its condition of reality is impossible. If prose is unable to reproduce life, might it be possible to restore prose to a position closer to the flow of life? This is my main concern with form.

In the Hwanghae Province of North Korea, in a district known as Sin-cheon, a museum indicting the American military of the massacre of innocents was built. The literal translation of the museum’s name is “The American Imperialist Massacre Remembrance Museum.” Many years ago, when I visited the North, they took me to this place as a matter of course. Later on, during my stay in New York, I met a minister and heard his eyewitness account of his childhood, which answered many of my questions. Not too long afterwards in Los Angeles, I was lucky enough to meet an extremely pious Christian woman, the mother of a friend’s friend, who shared with me her detailed firsthand account of the actual incident during the Korean War that led to the founding of the aforementioned museum.

In Berlin, where I was on site for the rapid changes that swept across the world after the wall came down, a certain thought crystallized in my mind: namely, the notion that I ought to “look upon the world in my own, unique way,” and the idea to try and take “‘realistic’thought and imbed it within the East Asian form.”

The truth of the matter was that the atrocities in question were committed “amongst ourselves,” and that the inner sense of guilt and fear sparked by this incident eventually formed the roots of the frantic hatred that thrives to this day. Even a couple of years after I completed The Guest, I received fierce attacks from nationalists in both the North and the South.

I returned from my exile while I was still in the process of gathering data and eyewitness accounts, and my imprisonment halted my progress for quite a while. In my cell, I tried applying a slew of different forms to the storyline until the plot had ripened effectively; the delay was, in a way, almost a blessing in disguise. Through Korea’s identity as a colony and a divided nation, both Christianity and Marxism were unable to achieve a natural, spontaneous modernization; instead, they were forced to reach modernity in accordance with conscious human will. In North Korea, where the legacy of class structure during the traditional period was relatively diluted compared to the South, Christianity and Marxism were zealously adopted as facets of “enlightenment.” As it were, the root from above may have had two branches.

During the modern age, when smallpox was first identified as a Western disease that needed to be warded off, the Korean people often referred to it as “mama” or “sonnim,” the second of which translates to“guest.” Shamanic exorcisms, called “guest exorcisms”were often held. With this in mind, I settled upon The Guest as my title, to represent the arrival of Christianity and Marxism in a country where both were initially as foreign as smallpox.

The Guest is essentially a round of shamanistic exorcism designed to relieve the agony of those who survived and appease the angry spirits who died during the fifty-day nightmare that occurred in Hwanghae Province so many years earlier. The work is modeled after the “Chinogwi Exorcism” of Hwanghae Province, which is made up of twelve separate rounds. The Guest has twelve chapters. As is the case with an actual exorcism, the dead and the living simultaneously cross and re-cross the boundaries between past and present, appearing at what seems like random intervals to share each of their stories and memories. My intention was to create a kind of oral discourse in which a type of time travel provided the latitudinal coordinates of the story, with the longitude provided by the individual characters’ first person narratives, revealing a wide range of experiences and perspectives. With these lines of latitude and longitude, I was able to knit an overall narrative structure through a process akin to that of weaving a strip of hemp cloth.

If it is true that trying to rid yourself of your residual memories and the events that created them simply results in the memory becoming clearer and more solid, then the spirits of the past must be impossible to escape regardless of whether one is alive or dead. Furthermore, these apparitions can be more than mere phantoms: at times they are sent to us by the tragic wars of the past as a form of karma with which we must deal like the burden of history, a vivid reality even now.

The spirits of the dead who leave the Grim Reaper to attend the exorcisms and interact with those who are still alive then assume the absolute authority of the divinity that a particular shaman worships. Many people have been sacrificed by the blind inevitability of history itself; hence, dismantling this structure and returning to a state in which time belongs to the people is one goal of this novel.

It would seem that with these three novels, I have completed a twentieth-century trilogy of sorts, but it seems the world has still not been able to extricate itself from the same conditions and situations. 


by Hwang Sok-yong

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.