Sunday 18 May 2014

'The Guest' by Hwang Sok-yong (Review)

We're back to Korean literature today, and after looking at work by such luminaries as Yi Mun-yol, Park Wan-suh and Kim Young-ha, we have another big name to add to the list.  The book itself is a good one too - after several looks at South Korea, we finally get our first extended glimpse of the North...

Hwang Sok-yong's The Guest (translated by Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West, review copy courtesy of Seven Stories Press) is an excellent novel focused on an atrocity which happened during the Korean War.  The main character is Reverend Ryu Yosop, a Korean man who moved to the United States, escaping from the chaos left by the civil war.

Now, forty years later, he has the chance to return to North Korea, one of a number of emigrants permitted to meet family members again.  Just before his departure, though, his elder brother Yohan passes away, and Yosop's homecoming turns into something more than just an opportunity to see some relatives.  You see, Yohan was responsible for some terrible things back in Korea, and it's now left to Yosop to face up to the ghosts of the past.  And when I say ghosts...

The Guest is a book which was met with dismay by the authorities on both sides of the border, and it's little wonder considering the subject matter.  It deals with a massacre in a collection of towns in the North in the middle of the Korean War, an incident which was blamed on the advancing American soldiers.  However, it turns out that the murders were all carried out by Koreans, with Ryu Yohan being amongst the leaders of those carrying out the atrocities.

Hwang structures his book in such a way that the reader is pulled in two directions (chronologically, that is).  We follow Yosop on his journey back to North Korea, and through his eyes we see the changes that have occurred in forty years, allowing us a rare insight into the country.  For the elderly reverend, it's to prove an emotional homecoming, despite his tainted memories:
"The moment he uttered Ch'ansaemgol, Yosop realized that some forty years had passed since he'd last mentioned the name of his hometown.  Ch'ansaemgol.  The word started out with the scent of a mountain berry, lingering at the tip of one's tongue - but then the fragrance suddenly turned into the stench of rotting fish.  It was as if a blob of black paint had been dumped on a watercolor filled with tender, pale-green leaves, the darkness slowly seeping outward towards the edges."
p.15 (Seven Stories Press, 2007)
It's with as much trepidation as joy that the old man heads off to Korea.

However, what he finds there surprises him (and perhaps us...).  He arrives to find a country which, if not as advanced as the US, or South Korea, is nonetheless a normal functioning place.  While the officials in charge of the tour are naturally suspicious of every step he takes outside the officially-sanctioned timetable, they help him to meet up with surviving relatives and even allow him to have a glimpse of his home village.  Still, not everyone's pleased to see him...

This is all due to what happened in the past, and the second strand, compiled from various eye-witness accounts, tells of the build-up to the massacre, before detailing the actions of those few horrific days.  Hwang tells the reader about the slow rise of Christianity on the Korean peninsula, and the inevitable clash of cultures which was to occur when the Communists, supported by China, began to throw their weight about after the liberation from the Japanese at the end of the Second World War.  The two imported ideologies, utterly incompatible, are the catalyst for a breakdown of the family- and community-based life the Koreans are accustomed to - the war is almost merely an excuse for the fighting to start.

The title is an interesting one.  Much as you'd assume that Yosop is the guest, there are several others highlighted in the novel.  The two foreign ideologies, Christianity and Communism, are treated as unwelcome guests (depending on where you're standing), and the word is also a euphemism for smallpox, another unwelcome 'guest', brought into the country by foreigners:
"You don't know how scary the Guest can be, do you?  Just over the past few years, in this valley alone, hundreds of children have died from it.  Even if you survive, I'm telling you, it's no use - the Guest scars you, it scars your face, leaves you marked for life." (p.43)
It's a warning about the dangers of imported evils - and a premonition of what's to come later.

One of the more interesting features of the novel, though, is the way in which Yosop is forced to face up to the ghosts of the past - literally.  You see, while most novels would be content with flashbacks, The Guest uses the protagonists themselves to tell the reader what happened, dragging them back from the other side of the grave.  Yosop has several encounters with his brother and other villagers, at one point becoming overwhelmed by the encounters with the ghosts:
"As soon as the tail of this group disappeared into the next room, Yosop began to wonder whether all the tourists in the group might not be dead." (p.93)
Luckily, he realises that he's not the only one receiving these guests.  One night, he and his uncle sit down for a final chat with a whole host of the dearly departed...

The Guest is a book I enjoyed greatly, an informative, fascinating story on a topic which can't help but intrigue.  The translation is smooth and enjoyable to read (although I wasn't sure we needed quite so many footnotes on Korean clothes and food items).  Of the Korean books I've read so far this year, this is probably the one I'd recommend most highly as it's a great mix of story and traditional culture.  It might be a little dry for some, but there's something there for most to enjoy.  I'm certainly happy I got to encounter another talented Korean writer, and you can rest assured that I'll be looking at some more of Hwang's work - hopefully quite soon, too ;)