Thursday 19 June 2014

'Black Flower' by Kim Young-ha (Review)

Another of the Korean writers I was introduced to recently was Kim Young-ha, a man with a reasonably high profile in the West - and with a few books in English already.  His most recent work in translation is a work of historical fiction (certainly a departure from the shorter works of his I've read), and it takes the reader far away from Korea.  Shall we set sail?  There's a long voyage ahead...

Black Flower (translated by Charles La Shure, published by Mariner Books) begins in 1904, with the Korean Empire entering its final days.  A thousand or so people have decided to leave their homeland, hoping to make a living (and some cash) by working hard as farmers in far-off Mexico.  Few of the emigrants know anything about their new home (only one can even speak Spanish), but they're all convinced that this will be a change for the better.

The truth, though, is that the new start isn't quite as wonderful as everyone had hoped.  After a traumatic crossing of the pacific, the Koreans end up in Mexico only to find that their future has been signed away.  For four years, they are to work on the infamous haciendas, sold into indentured servitude - for most, the hope of returning home one day as a wealthy person is nothing but an impossible dream...

While a work of fiction, Black Flower is based on real events - this mass emigration really happened.  As the Korean Empire was in the process of being dismantled by Japan, a shipload of Koreans set sail for Mexico, hoping to gain fortune and fame in a new world.  It is this story that Kim uses as the springboard for his novel - the crossing, the haciendas and the struggles in Mexico and Guatemala.

The six-week crossing is a terrible experience, but the culture shock really kicks in once the Koreans arrive in Mexico.  As farmers, used to a hard life, the immigrants expect that their work will be fairly similar to what they did back home, but their new environment is startling different to the Korean landscape:
"The vastness of the plain was felt strongly by the Koreans, who had never in their lives seen the horizon on land.  They realized they had been born between the mountains, had grown up looking at the mountains, and went to sleep when the sun fell behind the mountains.  This endless plain, with no Arirang Hill of their folk songs, was a truly strange sight, and they tossed and turned not so much because the ground was hard but because of the boundlessness and emptiness around them."
p.81 (Mariner Books, 2013)
No mountains, little water, no rice paddies - Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Seoul anymore...

As is the case with most expansive historical fiction, Kim creates a cast of characters for us to follow.  The writer introduces us to soldiers, thieves, an enterprising interpreter and an apostate priest, each of whom will play their role in uncovering the country they find themselves in.  However, the main focus is on orphan Kim Ijeong and Yi Yeonsu, the daughter of an aristocrat, who soon become drawn to each other.  Their romance starts on board the boat, bringing to mind Jack and Rose from the film Titanic, and in fact the first part of the story has a lot of a Titanic feel about it (just dirtier...)

In the environment they find themselves thrust into, the Koreans soon notice the erosion of the rigid social barriers which separate people back home.  Yeonsu's father Yi Jongdo, a distant relation of the Emperor, can't bring himself to work, preferring to sit at home rereading Confucius.  However, he is the exception; the majority quickly grasp the new reality:
Ijeong spoke.  "Do you really think the distinction between high and low, old and young, and man and woman will be as severe as it is in Korea?  Look at this ship we are on.  Aristocrat or commoner, all must line up to eat." (p.68)
The reality is that the Korea they knew no longer exists, and in the New World, they will all have to forge new lives and identities.  This is especially true as, soon after their departure, their old country actually ceases to exist...

There's a lot to like about Black Flower, and I've enjoyed filling in another little gap in my (enormous) ignorance of Korean history.  However, several people have said this is not Kim's best work, and I can certainly see why.  The writing is a little bit flat, almost wooden at times, and the novel is so didactic in places that it reads more like a history text.  Also, while Ijeong is the one I'd pick as the central protagonist, he's a hero who goes AWOL at times, and as a result, the story meanders a little.

A bigger issue, though, is that at 300 pages it actually feels too short.  It's as if the writer, having gone to the effort of researching the story, ran out of steam towards the end and decided to wrap it up quickly.  That's a shame because this is a great story, and it feels like it should, or could, have been an epic.  In the second part, events happen far too quickly, and the third part, thirty pages detailing the creation of 'New Korea' in Guatemala, could have been a short book in its own right (especially as the writer says, in his afterword, that this is the part that intrigued him!).

Still, it's not as bad as some had me believe before I started (I've certainly read worse...).  I enjoyed reading Black Flower, and it was a fascinating look at a little-known part of history, especially in the Anglosphere.  I'll certainly give Kim another try, and I suspect that his other books will be more to my taste.  One thing I remember from the 10 Magazine Book Club interview I watched a while back is that he talked about his interest in taking genres and twisting them in his own manner.  Historical fiction doesn't seem to be his thing, but perhaps... spy fiction?  Your Republic is Calling You - and me too;)