One of the central themes of One Spoon on This Earth is the role of memory in uncovering and recovering the past. In Jeju, the past was for many years a restricted area, with discussion of the 1948 uprising and its brutal suppression forbidden. Families that had lost members were obliged to forget the dead, to keep their grief and outrage buried. As someone who was a boy on the island during that dreadful time, whose life was touched by its tragedy, Hyun Ki-young’s boyhood memories are inextricably linked to the historical memories of the community – memories that can seem clear and precise one moment, hazy and incomplete the next.
The village that was the author’s home for the first seven years of his life was, he tells us, utterly destroyed during the rebellion; when he revisits the site, he can find no trace of it, though the swaying bamboo and blossoming myrtle tree that have subsequently grown there serve to emphasize, via contrast, the writer’s impression of obliteration. Mirroring the physical annihilation of the village is the obscurity in which it is cloaked in the writer’s mental landscape, or at least how he conceives of it:
It feels like the first six years of my life spent there – that place of only desolate darkness – had been erased with smeared ink. My perception of this darkness is the sincere truth, but without a doubt it is mostly the exaggerated work of a physiological lapse of memory. Since it was only a short period of time after my birth, my ability to think was not fully developed. In any case, I must simultaneously penetrate the darkness of the black burnt wasteland and the darkness of my lapse of memory, revive the dead village, and confront my forgotten childhood.
The image of erasure by smeared ink is brilliant; the elusive past is a document that has been defaced, made illegible, by the same substance – ink – in which it was written, and the same substance with which the writer hopes to recover it. The smearing of ink seems an act of wanton vandalism; this links it to the destruction of the author’s home village, the black ink associated with the black, burnt-out ruins and the darkness of forgetting. The task facing the author is a double one, both public and private: reviving the dead village sounds like an act performed for the benefit of the community, whereas confronting his forgotten childhood seems to answer a more personal need. But there are problems with both aspects of his investigation into the past. As a young boy during the time of the massacre, his understanding of events would necessarily have been limited. What is more, he did not witness the slaughter first-hand. His narration of what happened, therefore, consists largely of information derived from historical sources and from other people’s memories (people who, for years, have had to repress those memories). One of the writer’s most vivid memories – that of his grandfather fearfully emerging from his hiding place amidst the burnt-out ruins of his village, an image so vivid that it is like ‘a charcoal sketch in a perfect composition in [his] consciousness’ – is not his own, but his father’s, who had described the scene to him.
As for confronting his forgotten childhood, you might question to what extent it is forgotten, as Hyun is not consistent on this point. ‘I know it’s futile,’ he writes, ‘but I am trying hard to piece together fragments of my memories that have already slipped through my fingers by writing this.’ This does indeed seem futile, for in this image, the writer is trying to reconstruct something with pieces that have been lost – surely an impossibility. Memories as pieces or fragments also figure in the following explanation of his process of remembering and writing:
Writing this is like digging deep into the unconscious, unearthing the painful memories of my past with a pickax. But every time a piece of those memories surfaces, I feel elated as if I am reliving that very moment.
Here, memories are like bits of ancient bone or stone, the work of bringing them to the surface a matter of hard physical labor, even violence. While the act of remembering can seem arduous or even futile, at other times, the past comes to the author rather easily. He describes himself as a man in late middle-age who, since his father’s death, has taken to pondering his own mortality and reflecting the scenes of his youth. The present and recent past have lost much of their flavor, so that he can write: ‘Now only my hometown memories of my childhood and youth shine gloriously in my mind when I think about my past, and the rest of time and tide is a meaningless succession of days’. The past, far from being shrouded in darkness, is here gloriously shining; memories are not painful, but pleasant, comforting. The past is viewed nostalgically; the poverty, the misery, the disease, the hunger, the bloodshed made temporarily invisible, or at least insignificant: ‘It was a time of innocence, void of all shame and guilt since nature was a part of my life. It feels like only that period of my life was the truth and the rest was one big lie’.
In comparison with the past, the present is often found wanting. In the modern-day Jeju City, a replacement for the town destroyed in the uprising, Hyun Ki-young can find nothing except the ‘madness and superficiality of pleasure-seeking consumer culture’; it is little more than an extension of Seoul (all Korean towns look alike, a legacy of destruction and rapid, repeated rebuilding, usually done on the cheap). ‘The places remain the same,’ he writes, ‘but something fundamental and truthful about my past has been buried underneath the concrete and heartless sights that reject my glare.’ The present is callously indifferent to the past, not only in the urban centres, but also in the countryside, which has become the playground of tourists who gawp at its beauty unaware of ‘all those unappeased, angry, and miserable spirits’ of the murdered that inhabit it (the author, meanwhile, likens the island’s many striking volcanic rocks to human bones).
However, there are still some remaining youthful haunts that call forth the author’s memories when he revisits them. A tiny, overgrown path where he used to run barefoot somehow survives, even though it is right next to a busy road much used by tourists. The smell of the grass, the sound of the grasshoppers, the appearance of the flowers, transport him back to his childhood. A large volcanic rock on the seashore draws him forward to climb it, as he used to climb it when he was a boy. At first, it is no easy task for the aging writer, but he soon feels as if his feet begin to remember how they used to be employed. He wonders whether the rock recognizes him; he has aged, while the rock has remained the same (‘The rock is eternal and I am ephemeral’). From his vantage point, he fancies that he can see his young self, swimming in the sea ahead of him.
Past and present intermingle, merge, separate, are lost to one another. Now one, now the other, seems more real. Tense, in Hyun’s narrative, often shifts within paragraphs. Sometimes the author refers to his younger self in the third person. Memories, even vivid ones, are unreliable, treacherous: three different incidents of seeing three different women naked (one of them dead) become fused in his mind as one image. Although, at the beginning, the first seven years of the author’s life are said to be lost in darkness, elsewhere he writes that his relation of his early boyhood is more accurate, more linear than later portions because he is able to peg his memories to the historical record:
Although inadequate, I have written my story in chronological order up to this point. And the reason why this has been possible was because of major events that occurred year after year without fail. My past not only includes my personal memory but collective memory as well, meaning history.
Famine, rebellion, war – major historical events such as these make it easier to fix memories that would otherwise be nebulous. But in this case, those major events have for many years been wiped from public record, their historical reality consigned to the secrecy of private memory. In writing of those years, of those events, the author ensures that that obscurity is not permanent, that people are able to commemorate openly – and that his own, personal memories, unique to him, have some footing and security. The security of chronology, which may be illusory, vanishes when ‘history’ (if history can be said to consist of major events) abandons Jeju and leaves it an ordinary, isolated island, far removed from the wider world in which history continues to be made. Chronology is meaningless; every day is the same as the others; three years can pass like one year. It is then that memories cease to be discrete; impressions ‘comprised of light, sound, and smell are not particular to one day or a particular event’. Memories, in this state, can only take on a semblance of meaning when examined at a distance by the middle-aged author, for the child can only experience with very little accompanying understanding. Understanding comes only with adult reminiscence and reflection, but these are reliant on what has been retained in the mind since childhood. Neither child nor adult can provide a complete picture; gaps have to be filled by imagination and exaggeration. Hyun claims that the main goal of his writing ‘is to choose and find different fragments of memories nestled in the dark to piece them together to create one complete story’ – but, of course, it can never be one complete story. For one thing, the book ends before its protagonist has entered adulthood; there is no climax, no moment of enlightenment or sudden maturation, no sense of a definitive point being reached. The author refers to his departure from the island to study in Seoul, where he has resided ever since, but the moment of departure isn’t depicted. The book ends where it does for no compelling reason; it could just have easily have carried on with more detail about the boy’s high school years, or even gone on to relate a bit more about his life after Jeju, and the lives of his parents. And that is another reason why the book can never be regarded as one complete story: because it is not the author’s story alone, but the story of his family, of all the remembered figures from his youth, of all who lived and died on the island during that time, of the island itself. As a public act of commemoration, Hyun commemorates not only the dead of the massacre, but a whole way of life that has largely vanished, leaving only the volcanic rocks and hills, the geological signifiers of a history vaster in extent than humans can seek to comprehend, leaving our own histories looking blessedly small.