Tuesday, 22 July 2014

'The Shadow of Arms' by Hwang Sok-yong (Review)

After enjoying The Guest, I was looking forward to the second of the Hwang Sok-yong books I received from Seven Stories Press a while back.  As you can see from the cover, though, while The Guest was a slow, reflective novel about a man's return to Korea, today's choice is a slightly different work.  War, what is it good for?  Well, small business and the black market, apparently...

The Shadow of Arms (translated by Chun Kyung-ja) is, rather unusually for a Korean book, set outside the Korean peninsula, taking us further South-West.  The novel takes place during the Vietnam War, where we meet a Korean soldier Ahn Yong-kyu, who is whisked out of the trenches to the city of Da Nang.  The lucky soldier has been chosen to replace a returning officer at the Joint Investigation headquarters - meaning his job has changed from hunting the Vietcong to looking for blackmarket cigarettes.

However, while life is certainly more comfortable in the city, it's by no means simpler.  The scale of the war entails a massive influx of consumer goods from America and elsewhere, leading to a black-market economy on a breath-taking scale.  Both sides in the conflict are syphoning off food, money, white goods and weapons from the warehouses scattered around the city, and it's inevitable that connections will be made between people on opposing sides.  When it comes to business in the back streets of Da Nang, Yong-kyu soon learns that you're never quite sure who exactly you're dealing with...

The story may start in the jungle, but The Shadow of Arms is a book which mostly plays out in the city.  It's a story of Koreans in the Vietnam war, there as support for their American allies and protectors, a story many people will be unaware of.  At times, it comes across as a kind of M*A*S*H* for black-market investigators, but without the humour - this is a serious book exploring serious issues.

It's made abundantly clear from the start that money is behind everything taking place in the country, with a picture drawn of people hooked on both opium and consumer products.  Early on, Yong-kyu has a glimpse of the packed American warehouses:
"What is a PX?  A Disneyland in a vast tin warehouse.  A place where an exhausted soldier with a few bloodstained military dollars can buy and possess dreams mass-produced by industrial enterprises.  The ducks and rabbits and fairies are replaced by machines and laughter and dances.  The wrapping paper and the boxes smell of rich oil and are as beautiful as flowers."
p.6 (Seven Stories Press, 2014)
A third-world country and first-world goods - it's no wonder that many people are led into the temptation of the black market...

The Korean newcomer proves himself to be surprisingly adaptive, soon making a name for himself in the markets of Da Nang.  While having to take part in the game in order to do his job, he's not greedy, diving into the black market mainly to make connections.  In doing so, he introduces the reader to a world of clubs, whore houses, American warehouses and back-street dealings - at which point many of you will be wondering where the war went.

It is out there, though, and Hwang does take us on occasional visits to the 'real' Vietnam.  The two other main characters in the book are Pham Quyen, a powerful Vietnamese Major, and his younger brother Pham Minh - an undercover agent for the National Liberation Front.  Away from Yong-kyu and his work, it's here we see some bloodshed amongst the corruption, receiving an insight into the mindset of both sides.

We also hear of atrocities, mainly from American court-martial reports.  These chapters take the form of written statements, in which soldiers are interviewed by the military police for their involvement in attacks on civilians.  Whole villages are murdered, women are raped and disposed of, yet the statements are taken calmly and filed away.  The way the crimes are handled is eerily clinical, in contrast with what actually happened...

The Shadow of Arms is a fascinating view of the Vietnam war from a different angle to the one most of us will have used before.  Yong-kyu acts as a quasi-neutral observer - he's mostly detached, but his mask does slip occasionally:
"Drink, drink, you'll feel great at heart, peel and and eat it while it's still soft and tender, chew it, relish it, suck it, suck it, stick it in deep and suck it, see you in a clean bedroom with graceful designs and tasteful decor, soft touch, for diminishing stamina, for indigestion, it'll make you younger, it'll make you sleep, stocks and savings and investments will make a deluge of money, of rifles machine guns rockets grenades cannon napalm helicopters tanks kill me take the GI money and run for the room down the hall, hey, whore here's your customer, take him to your room sit down lie down undress go ahead spread insert suck pay soldiers of the Cross rise up for the Lord go away brimstone is burning God bless Americans God bless America." (p.236)
As you can see, while he's usually cool and professional in his work, even he gets a little disillusioned with what's going on in the country...

While both sides have their bad points, the book certainly dwells more on the shortcomings of Americans.  Certainly, an American (especially one with a personal connection to the war) might be more affected by the negative portrayal of their behaviour than I was, and there's little about Vietcong atrocities until the end of the novel.  For this reason, The Shadow of Arms (based on Hwang's own experiences in Vietnam) was a controversial book in Korea; in fact, the second part was only published after a political change of regime.

The Shadow of Arms is an interesting read, but there are a few issues I had with it.  The book needed a conclusion after the development of relationships between Yong-kyu and the two brothers, but it seemed a little forced, too quick and contrived.  As a whole, the book suffers a little from the uneasy mix of literary fiction and thriller (similar to the issues I had last year with Ryu Murakami's From the Fatherland, With Love).

In some places, the translation also seemed a little off.  There were unusual typos ('of' for 'off' in some phrasal verbs, 'taught' instead of 'taut') which perhaps should have been picked up (and may have been in a later print).  I also found it hard to distinguish between the Americans and Koreans at times, although I actually found that the Vietnamese characters were much clearer and more distinct.

Perhaps a question to resolve here is who would enjoy this book most.  I have a feeling that it's less for lovers of K-Lit and literary fiction than readers interested in the Vietnam War, as it's a solid novel which looks at the conflict from a new angle.  It gives us a picture of Da Nang as a temporarily multi-cultural city, a Vietnamese Casablanca, if you will.  The moral of the story, though?  Well, that's hard to distill into one idea, but where there's a war, you need cocktails and dancing, and there's always someone who can get his hands on them - at a price...