The Story of Hong Gildong (date and author unknown, trans. Minsoo Kang)

The basis of numerous films, TV shows and comic books, Hong Gildong is a brief, rollicking piece of popular entertainment featuring a legendary outlaw endowed with superhuman powers. Like Robin Hood, he steals from the rich to give to the poor, and rights injustices committed by corrupt officials, but also winds up with a kingdom of his own. The interest of this work derives both from the brio of its storytelling and its status as a cultural artefact of late Joseon-period Korea. In his introduction, translator Minsoo Kang argues against the traditional attribution of authorship to poet and politician Heo Gyun (1569-1618) in favour of a much later publication in the mid-19th  century, at a time of political crisis and the growth of a mass-market readership that preferred exciting plots to the edifying texts consumed by the scholarly elite. Edification is not entirely absent in this instance, but excitement, humour, wonder and sentiment are far more to the fore.

There are three sections. The first deals with the hero’s birth and his troubled upbringing as the illegitimate son of a high-ranking minister; the second relates his criminal exploits; the third takes the action out of Korea―first to China, and then to two fictional islands, of which Hong Gildong becomes king. The hero’s illegitimacy (his mother was a servant, and subsequently concubine, of the minister) is the motor for the plot, as all his discontent derives from the discrimination faced by illegitimate sons in an austerely hierarchical society. For all his astonishing strength, intelligence and virtue, the young Gildong realises from an early age that government posts will be barred to him; worse, he is denied the full affection of his father, who, in spite of the high regard in which he holds his son, is such a stickler for propriety that the boy is forbidden from addressing him as father.

The father-son relationship and its place within the dynamics of the Hong family is the main concern of the first section. Minister Hong is described at the beginning as an honourable man, but his behaviour throughout is questionable. Most disturbing is the conduct that leads to Gildong’s birth. Following an auspicious dream featuring a dragon, the minister tries to sleep with his wife (or, as the text puts it, makes ‘apparent his intention to become one with her in a decorous manner’), but is rebuffed on the grounds of his age and dignity. Instead, he sleeps with a young servant girl:

Although Chunseom was only a servant girl, she had a gentle nature and her demeanor and actions were always as proper as those of a respectable maiden. She may have been lowborn, but there was nothing lowly about her character. When the minister approached her so suddenly with an authoritative air and made apparent his ardent desire for her, she dared not resist his advance and allowed him the use of her body. From that day on she never ventured outside the house and showed no interest in other men. The minister was so impressed by her loyalty that he made her a concubine.

The domineering exertion of his power to satisfy his lust is bad enough; it might have been even worse had not Chunseom demonstrated her ‘loyalty,’ which is what persuades the minister to raise her status to that of concubine. It is clear that had Chunseom acted differently, Minister Hong might easily have kept her as a servant girl, or even cast her out, after getting her pregnant. Chunseom’s unswerving devotion, which is the mark of her virtue, might suggest an uncritical endorsement of male privilege, just as Gildong’s continuing reverence towards his father might suggest an uncritical endorsement of patriarchal authority, but the minister’s actions (particularly his gullibility in the face of the scheming of his senior concubine, which leads him to consider having his own son killed) leave him open to a heap of criticism, thus lending an ambivalence to the text. Similarly, while the adult Gildong displays to the Joseon king a mixture of impish defiance and firm loyalty, the king’s repeated failure either to capture the outlaw or utilize his talents within the state, as well as the implicit royal tolerance of ministerial abuses, weaken his authority. There is certainly an anti-authoritarian streak to this text, exemplified by the narrative’s clear endorsement of Gildong’s refusal to simply accept the second-class status society (including his father) would force on him, and the story has often been read as a subversive work. But, as Kang writes in his introduction, the subversive elements co-exist with more conservative attitudes (Gildong wishes rather to be recognized and awarded by the state than to overthrow it), resulting in an uneasy ambiguity perhaps reflective of the ambiguity and uneasiness of late Joseon politics, and also of the conflicting impulses within the popular market towards defiance of conventional morality and adherence to it.

The second section is the most entertaining, yet it also tests the tension between rebellion and obedience almost to breaking point. Gildong does not assemble his band of thieves from scratch, but rather wins control of an already successful outfit after a demonstration of his prowess; once the command is his, he warns that disobedience will be punished according to military law, refashioning his group so that it resembles the model of the royal army. Later, a general tasked with apprehending the criminal is seized and brought before ‘a great king dressed in a silk robe and a jade belt’ who sits on a high throne, and when the hero executes corrupt officials, he does so in the guise of a government inspector. Even as a bandit Gildong replicates the Joseon state, half as rival, half as loyal imitator. The motives by which Gildong claims to be guided aren’t always as pure as he claims, either. His first act of daring as leader is not a raid against an overbearing landowner or oppressive governor, but the looting of a Buddhist temple, its hapless monks being no match for the hero, who humiliates them with a glee bordering on the sadistic. Following the stunt’s success, he gives a speech to his men, solemnly commanding them not to steal from or harm the common people, or to take grain being collected by the government. Sure enough, he soon after steals grain from a local administrative centre. Perhaps we are to understand that this is not grain reserved for the common people, but the store of the yangban, or ruling class―but even if this is the case, would not the store simply be replenished at the commoners’ expense? In order to prevent innocent people from being punished for his crimes, Gildong advertises his own responsibility, but in doing so dishonours his family, breaking his parting promise to his father. As the outlaw’s notoriety spreads, the Hongs become increasingly endangered, yet each time Gildong promises to hand himself in for their sake, he eludes capture right at the last minute. His antics are funny, but there’s a strain of callousness, even cruelty, in the laughter. And what is his great aim in all of this? The demand he makes of the king is that he be appointed minister of war, yet in return he vows to leave the kingdom, which would leave him incapable of carrying out the duties of his post. It would seem that all he wants is an empty title free of any obligation to work.

Gildong’s powers being too great for Joseon to safely contain them, it is only natural that he should leave, just as he leaves his family. It is hard to see what other direction the story could have taken. Defeat and a glorious death, perhaps, but the problem would then have arisen of what to do with his family, as the relatives of traitors and rebels were deemed to share the offender’s guilt, and were often executed. Destroying the Hongs would have struck too sombre a note, so some potentially distracting device to save them would have been necessary. A reformed hero who renounces banditry and reaches an accommodation with the state would have been a terrible let-down, and so the simplest way to achieve a satisfactory ending is to remove the action from Korea. Granting him an invented kingdom to rule over, with his outlaw companions as his ministers of state, is an obvious conclusion. What is striking is that the fantastic elements actually decrease on fictional soil; there’s a bit of monster fighting in China, but once Gildong is made king of his make-believe island, he largely concerns himself with matters of ritual, ceremony and protocol; when he conquers new territory, it is through mostly conventional military means (no qualms about invading other lands, of course―might is right). The ending, though, is unexpected, calling to mind, of all things, Oedipus at Colonus―an oddly effective note of mystery and grandeur on which to end a diverting yarn.

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng (1795-1805, translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush)

These memoirs consist of four separate documents written by a high-ranking lady of the Korean royal court. Lady Hyegyŏng (or Hyegyeong*) was not her actual name, but one of several titles by which she is known to historians; her family name was Hong. Hers was, to say the least, an eventful life: married while still a child to the heir to the throne, she managed to survive the vicissitudes of palace life in the Chŏson era to reach a relatively secure and comfortable old age. The most appalling incident of her life, and one of the most notorious events in Korean history, was the execution of her husband, Crown Prince Sado, who suffered the macabre fate of being secured in a rice chest and being left to die of starvation. The author’s story is a compelling one, but the nature of the composition of the text(s) means that some sections are considerably more engaging than others. In general, however, it’s a riveting book. As a teenager, I was captivated by Robert Graves’s Claudius novels, and this book offers many of the same pleasures: rivalries, conspiracies, familial and factional strife, reversals of fortune, madness, and murder. A significant difference is that instead of the debauched opulence of Imperial Rome, we have the austerity of neo-Confucian Korea, with its rigid protocol and elaborate rituals; there is a different tension, therefore, between the order maintained by political authority and the chaos that threatens to overwhelm it. Graves portrays a Rome where turbulence is usually the result of the extreme luxury and licentiousness of an amoral elite, whereas in Lady Hyegyŏng’s account, it is likely to appear to modern readers as a reaction to an extreme, repressive formality and impossible ideals of emotional self-control (Lady Hyegyŏng’s own attitude on this score is ambivalent, and not easy to gage).

The first memoir, written when the author was 60, is a general survey of her life, written, she claims, with the purpose of providing her family with a record that might be passed from generation to generation. She begins with her childhood, depicted nostalgically as a time spent under the care of loving and impeccably virtuous parents. Paradise is lost when, after a rigorous selection process, she is chosen to be the bride of Crown Prince Sado; both were only children of 9 at the time (10 by Korean reckoning). This unexpected honor, which utterly alters the course of her life and those of her immediate relations, has the most painful of consequences: separation from her family. The prospect of being sent to live in one of the royal palaces is an awful one both for her and for her parents:

Realizing that his daughter was going to be Crown Princess Consort and that it was going to be irrevocable, Father seemed to experience an acute sense of apprehension. He perspired heavily, his clothes often became soaked, and he seemed to dread the parting. In his uneasiness, he counselled me, offering a thousand, ten thousand words of advice. I cannot recall them all. The prospect of leaving my parents was, of course, simply unbearable for me. This was so horrifying that whenever I thought of it, my insides seemed to just melt away. I fell into a state of such intense anguish that I lost interest in everything.

Life for the young girl suddenly becomes very different indeed: stricter, colder, starved of affection and play, burdened by duties and the weight of expectations attending her role. Her father-in-law, King Yŏngjo, treats her kindly, but from a distance. The counsel he offers his new relation seems truly bizarre from a modern standpoint:

“Now that I have formally received your gift as your father-in-law, allow me a word of advice. In serving the Crown Prince, please be gentle with him and do not be frivolous of voice or expression. If his eyes wander, pretend that you do not notice. It is not at all an unusual thing in the palace, and so it is best to behave normally, not letting him know that you noticed… It is improper for a woman to show her undergarments to her husband. So do not carelessly loosen your clothes in his presence. There is another thing―the rouge stains on women’s towels are not pretty, even though it is rouge. So do not leave rouge marks on towels.”

Remember that he is talking to a pre-teenaged girl.

The King’s behavior to his own son is even more reserved―positively aloof, even. The young author gets on well with her husband, whom she portrays as a gifted child, but as he grows older, he shows distressing signs of mental illness, which will be described in greater detail in the final memoir. Much of the material relating to Prince Sado appears here only in partial disclosure or vague allusion because Lady Hyegyŏng was writing at a time when the circumstances of her husband’s death were a highly sensitive topic; delving into them too deeply would have been dangerous. Thus, we are told of the increasingly strained relationship between father and son, but are given only glimpses into the reasons behind the disharmony. The author claims that she was in a state of suicidal despair, but she says little about why this was so. When matters come to a head in 1762, Sado’s execution is referred to cryptically (Heaven and Earth clashed and the sun and the moon turned black). The second and third memoirs offer a little more insight, but not much; only by the time of the fourth memoir did the political situation favor the appearance of a full account.

Lady Hyegyŏng endures further trials following the death of her husband: she is separated from her young son, the future King Chŏngjo; the aged Yŏngjo becomes increasingly erratic in judgement; family members become embroiled in plots against them. She looks back on these troubles from a position of relative security, but by the time that the second and third memoirs were written 1801 and 1802, matters had deteriorated and her life was somewhat precarious. These pieces are largely concerned with defending her family’s reputation against the numerous attacks it had sustained, especially following the events of 1762; as such, they will probably be of less interest to most readers than the first and fourth memoirs. However, the second memoir does contain a vividly caustic portrait of Princess Hwawan, Sado’s power-hungry sister and over-indulged favorite of Yŏngjo. Lady Hyegyŏng brilliantly skewers her sister-in-law relating an episode in which the Princess, whom she slightingly calls Madame Chŏng, requests her help. The façade of the concerned relative acting only in the best interests of the state is undermined by the insinuating, mock-humble speeches the author reports her as giving, making visible her nefarious designs. But there’s a problem. Lady Hyegyŏng strives to present herself as a trusting, ingenuous woman out of her depth in the deviously conspiratorial world of the court. This is, however, hard to reconcile with the deep understanding she displays of the duplicitous language employed by practitioners of intrigue; even if she doesn’t necessarily implicate herself in the corruption, she unwittingly demonstrates a greater familiarity with its workings than her self-presentation of naïve innocent would allow. On the one hand she claims to have taken Madame Chŏng completely at her word and that she never suspected her of ulterior motives; on the other, she states just a few lines later that she did as Madame Chŏng asked because knowing her as [she] did, she knew that the princess would only cause further trouble if she were to be rebuffed. Lady Hyegyŏng displays further understanding of the scrupulously nuanced and even cunning language necessary at court when she describes the terrible results of a failure in verbal nuance―a particularly agonizing failure because the person in question is well aware of the high stakes involved and attempts to traverse the tightrope by making use of empty formula, a tactic that proves unsuccessful. Of course, the mere fact that Lady Hyegyŏng lived to tell the tale makes it unlikely that she was entirely unskilled in the dark arts of politics.

Undoubtedly the most gripping section of the book is the fourth memoir, written in 1805 when the writer was 70. Following Prince Sado’s execution, discussion of the incident was strongly discouraged; the court itself maintained a policy of secrecy. Far from consigning the matter to oblivion, however, the official silence only served to allow alternative versions of what happened to proliferate. As time passed, those who were close enough to events to be able to give an accurate account of them became fewer and fewer in number, until Lady Hyegyŏng was left (or so she says) the only one alive. Stating that it is her responsibility to correct false narratives (such as that Sado was the perfectly sane victim of a conspiracy**), she traces the development of her husband’s illness from childhood until its fatal culmination in a rice chest. Yŏngjo emerges from this story as both a neglectful and tyrannically overbearing father, his impossibly high demands placing his son under unbearable strain, so that Sado, debilitated by fear, is unable to answer simple questions. The prince is frequently subjected to humiliating public reproaches, denied even the smallest display of fatherly affection, and feels imprisoned in the cloistered palace confines he is seldom permitted to leave. His behavior grows ever more bizarre and erratic, eventually becoming violent and even murderous. So threatening is his existence deemed to be to the stability of the Chŏson state that it is terminated.

Lady Hyegyŏng’s portrait of Sado in the grip of madness is terrifying, and she well conveys the dread those around him must have felt in his presence. Yet she also maintains a remarkable sympathy for him, careful to note the intelligence and kindness apparent in periods of calm. She insists that his insanity be regarded as an illness, as a loss of his true nature, rather than as a manifestation of evil character―even when he commits the most awful acts. What must be regretted is that he became ill, she writes. His illness ‘had absolutely no bearing on his virtue. Yŏngjo, too, receives considerable sympathy, his qualities as a king praised even as his failings as a father are denounced. There is even a suggestion that his own mental health may have been somewhat imbalanced, his odd quirks and superstitions being reminiscent of his son’s. Nonetheless, the author is determined to demonstrate that Yŏngjo must bear most of the responsibility for Sado’s insanity, which worsens after he appoints him regent. It is scarce wonder that Sado was driven insane when he was subjected to treatment such as this:

If the Prince-Regent were to send a memo asking His Majesty’s opinion, His Majesty would rebuke him. “You cannot even handle matters of such insignificance. What is the use in having a regent?” But if the Prince-Regent did not seek his views beforehand, His Majesty would reprimand him just the same. “How dare you make decisions on such weighty matters without consulting me first?” he would scold. In everything, if the Prince did thus, His Majesty reproached him for not having done so, but if the Prince did so, then His Majesty criticized him for not having done this. There was nothing that the Prince-Regent did that His Majesty found satisfactory. He was constantly discontented and angry with his son. It reached a point where the occurrence of cold spells, droughts, poor harvests, strange natural omens, or calamities caused His Majesty to denounce “the Prince-Regent’s insufficient virtue” and to reproach the Prince most severely.

Yŏngjo’s attitude seems like an extreme version―almost a parody―of the harsh and sometimes contradictory requirements of Neo-Confucian ethics. Lady Hyegyŏng frequently finds herself torn between the competing demands of her roles as wife, widow, daughter, daughter-in-law, mother, sister and niece. It often comes down to a tension between what is expected of her in a (semi-)private capacity as a member of the Hong family, and what is expected of her in a public capacity as a member of the royal family; the public usually wins out. She is, for example, prevented from wearing full mourning dress after the death of her mother because it would not be in keeping with the court’s sartorial etiquette. Failure to honor one’s parents by observing the correct mourning rites is a grievous dereliction of social duty; the shame of it is keenly felt, but bear it she must. Her husband’s death sets in motion a ceaseless ripple of consequences that over successive decades tests her ability to live up to the Neo-Confucian ideals that were of such importance in the Korea of her time. What causes so much anguish is that the shame of being unable to meet one set of obligations is not diminished simply because one is forced to prioritize another, competing set of obligations. Giving precedence to one’s public persona may well be the correct, even the noble and self-sacrificing, thing to do, but that doesn’t (at least in the author’s view or stated view) mitigate the disgrace that comes with neglecting other duties; you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. When standards of the all-important filial piety are so impossibly exacting (one of the author’s brothers is guilty of being unfilial for having the temerity to die before his father), it is hardly surprising that Lady Hyegyŏng devotes a large part of her memoirs to wallowing in self-reproach (samples: ‘My terrible sin of unfiliality could not be redeemed, even if my bones were to be ground to dust,’ ‘So deeply ashamed was I that I blushed at my own shadow’ and ‘Can there be another as muddled, as stupid, as irresolute, and as weak as I?’), often for reasons that from today’s perspective seem strange. I can’t help but suspect an element of performance in this―of berating oneself in order to create an impression of virtue―but no doubt it’s mostly genuine.

The various factional disputes, the unfamiliar customs, rituals and modes of thought, the large cast of characters: all these might have made this book a difficult one to follow for non-Korean readers were it not for the extensive and informative notes and introduction provided by the translator, the late JaHyun Kim Haboush. Lady Hyegyŏng has left us a fascinating historical document, and it is fortunate that English readers are able to experience it in such an accessible form.

*For the sake of convenience, I will retain the translator’s usage of the McCune–Reischauer system of romanization of Korean, rather than the now more widely-used (at least in Korea) Revised Romanization system.

**This interpretation has endured in various forms in the popular imagination to this day. A TV series from last year apparently depicted Sado as an idealistic reformer killed because of the threat he represented to the established order. I should add that even legitimate historians do not appear, from my limited reading, to have arrived at a consensus regarding the unfortunate prince, thanks to the scarcity of surviving documentary evidence (the relevant royal records were erased in 1776). After all, the prominence these memoirs have attained is no reason to take them on trust; their author may well have been motivated by a secret agenda of her own. I don’t know enough to be able to reach my own conclusion, so I will limit myself to observing that if Lady Hyegyŏng’s final memoir is indeed a fabrication, then the level of detail and psychological insight she provides far surpasses the requirements of her brief. A key question (one for which I wouldn’t know where to seek an answer) for me would be: to what extent does the portrayal of Sado’s madness conform to the understandings and representations of madness current at the time of writing? If the portrayal differs radically from the models that were available to the writer, then that would surely argue against an attempt on her part to deceive. Many of the details of Sado’s behavior seem convincing today because they chime with modern notions of mental illness (both Sado and his father show signs of what we might be tempted to label OCD or OCPD), but if Lady Hyegyŏng’s intent was to establish a false narrative, the goal would have been to convince readers of her own time, not of ours. If there is no trace of an understanding of obsessive behavior in pre-19th Century Chŏson literature, then that would suggest that the author’s descriptions are based on observation.

One Spoon on this Earth (1999, Hyun Ki-young, translated by Jennifer M. Lee)

Part II

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.

One Spoon on This Earth (1999, Hyun Ki-young, translated by Jennifer M. Lee)

Part I

Lying south of the Korean Peninsula, the island of Jeju (or Cheju) has historically been sufficiently isolated from the mainland to develop its own distinct culture and dialect (which is very difficult for mainlanders to understand). Hyun Ki-young was born there in 1941. His life was marked by poverty, ill-health and troubled family circumstances, as well as the impact of massacres and war. I’ve seen One Spoon on This Earth (the translation published part of the Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature series) variously classed as a novel and as a fictionalized memoir; clearly, it is heavily autobiographical; to what extent is has been fictionalized is something I don’t know (the narrator and protagonist shares a family name with the author, and says that he is a writer himself, so I assume we are to understand the narrator and author as being essentially one and the same). It’s a flawed work, made to seem worse than it must be in its original language by the poor quality of the translation (more on that later), but it’s vivid and engrossing. I have found myself thinking about it a great deal since I finished reading it, and there’s such a lot that I want to write about that I’ve decided to split the review into two parts. This first part will serve as a general overview, while the second will focus on Hyun’s treatment of memory and the passing of time. Given that most Western readers know very little about Korean history, it might be useful to begin by sketching the historical background to Hyun’s narrative, as his childhood bore the imprint of history more than do most childhoods.

At the time of the author’s birth, Korea had been a colony of Japan for more than thirty years. Japan’s wartime defeat saw its expulsion from the peninsula and from Jeju, but Koreans were freed from their occupiers only to have their country divided along the 38th parallel. For three years, the southern part was administered by America; then, in 1948, the Republic of Korea was founded, and Syngman Rhee (as he is generally known in the West) inaugurated as its first president. Rhee had spent the years of occupation mostly in the U.S.A., and, as a rabid, authoritarian anti-communist, his presidency was strongly backed by the American government. Though Rhee himself had been a pro-independence activist, many politicians, business leaders, military men and other important figures in the new state had collaborated enthusiastically with the Japanese – a state of affairs given American blessing because fighting communism was now deemed more important than purging fascism. In Jeju, many people resented the division of the country and the suppression of local democracy movements that had developed in resistance to Japan; they were angered by what they saw as the imposition of a U.S.-backed strongman as head of an illegitimate state whose reins remained largely in the hands of men who had, just a few years before, been in cahoots with their colonial oppressors. In April 1948, in response to police firing on demonstrators, police stations were attacked and violence spread rapidly. Soldiers and fascistic youth groups were sent from the mainland to put down the rebellion; the suppression became a killing spree, with perhaps as many as 30,000 deaths, and 70% of the island’s villages destroyed. For many years following the massacre, all public mention of the events was prohibited; Hyun Ki-young was once beaten by police for writing about it.

Mainland Korea suffered its own bloody catastrophe a few years later in the war of 1950-1953. Nowadays, in the West, the war is best known for being the backdrop to the film and TV series M*A*S*H*; the viciousness and destructiveness of the conflict are seldom appreciated by a public that has all but forgotten it. No fighting took place on Jeju, but the war reopened the wounds of the uprising, and drew away as soldiers many of the island’s young men, including the protagonist’s father.

It is with this father’s death that the book opens. This occurs when the narrator is middle-aged; he takes to reflecting on his own mortality and finds his mind being cast back to the scenes of his childhood. In an odd detail, what serves more than anything to provoke these reflections is the sight, when washing the body, of his father’s penis. This leads him to think in general terms of origins and of death, and also, in particular, of his own birth, which very nearly ends in death:

In the vast darkness, I felt a new life stirring. And that was me. I was a fruit of that darkness. After I came out of my mother’s womb, I was dying even before I let out my first cry. I was slapped in the cheek and my entire body was shaken but I was dying, turning charcoal black. Did I wish to return to that darkness?… In this moment of life and death my grandmother, who was frantically rubbing my stomach, felt something the size of a chestnut. She pressed hard thinking this might be it. As if she had pressed the button of an automated doll, at that moment my windpipe opened up and I cried out my first cry so loud that it hurt everyone’s eardrums.

After this inauspicious beginning, the writer survives much as a boy: the massacre, famine, drought, a severe outbreak of cholera, cracking his skull open after a fall, and a fever that leaves him incontinent, partially deaf and with an impaired sense of direction. In addition to this, he suffers, at various points, eczema, boils, warts, worms, scabs, scrofula, styes, frostbite and pleurisy (conditions usually caused or exacerbated, according to the author, by poverty and malnutrition). His hand is crushed by a runaway blacksmith’s wheel; he is plagued by lice, mites and mosquitoes; his groin swells after he trips over a rock; during fights, he loses teeth, fractures ribs and has his head dented by a flying rock. In addition to these crises of physical health, his mental health often seems precarious. As a young child he is melancholy, tearful, stammering and impulsive; as he grows into his teenage years, his behaviour also acquires a violent edge. He twice attempts suicide. The narrator seldom digs very deep in terms of psychological analysis; indeed, some of his speculations seem rather naive, such as when he ascribes his tearfulness to an overdeveloped lachrymal gland, or wonders whether his impulsiveness is due to a shortage of serotonin. Some of the forces shaping his psychological development are, however, pretty plain to see.

Such a communally traumatic event as the Jeju Massacre would seem bound to have a significant effect on sensitive individuals like the young, fictionalized author, but he does not witness directly the worst of the bloodshed, and, besides, the description of the killings occupies only one small portion of the book. As for economic privations, he only becomes conscious of his poverty as he gets older and comes into contact with better-off students. The author, usually implicitly, locates much of the blame for his mental troubles at the door of his family, but he also, every now and again, writes warmly and lovingly of that same family.

His parents’ marriage is certainly not happy. His father, whom we first meet as an aged invalid on the verge of death, is an elusive figure for much of his son’s childhood. He goes through a period of insanity, wandering around the island and seldom returning home. His behavior drives his wife back to her parents, leaving her son to be brought up by his paternal grandparents. When the father recovers, he goes to the mainland, first as a soldier, then in an attempt to make money. He almost never writes, and in his occasional meetings with his son, displays little affection towards him. He is selfish, compulsive and unreliable; he commits two horrendous acts of betrayal. And yet the middle-aged narrator repeatedly chastises himself for the anger he had displayed as a youngster, for his unfilial lack of piety. His perspective may have changed following his father’s death, of course, and there is always the weight of the Confucian tradition, which insists on obedient devotion to one’s parents (in particular, one’s father), to be borne in mind. Even so, the author’s apologies and self-reproaches often seem somewhat excessive, given how little the father did to deserve any reverence from his son. Near the very beginning, as he massages his dying father’s feet, he recalls how he used to do to the same as a boy:

What started out as an act of love later became a loathsome act of obligation. I used to be an obedient junior high school student, but I became a rebellious high school punk who clashed with my father in reckless conflicts. In other words, at the center of my father’s life of turmoil was my share of unfilial acts.

But the explanation here of how he began massaging his father’s feet – that it was, at first, an act of love – is later contradicted. When the father returns to the family home, his wife will not allow him to sleep in the same room as her, and so he sleeps in his son’s room. His frequent screaming nightmares about his wartime experiences disturb the boy, who displays little sympathy, and is suspicious of the man who had abandoned him. He is made to sleep at his father’s feet, which are washed as if ready for a massage. The narrative here implies that the father manipulates his son into offering the first massage, which from the very next night become obligatory. The boy does begin to feel good about doing it, but it seems more like the satisfaction one derives from an act of altruism than from an act of love. The author makes it clear, in any case, that at this point he did not love his father, that he regarded him with a mixture of fear and resentment. There’s a curious disconnect between how the narrator claims to retrospectively view his boyhood relationship with his father and how that relationship is actually depicted. In telling the story, his father’s faults are laid bare; in commenting on the story, they’re brushed aside so that the author’s boyhood self becomes the one at fault. It’s also rather astonishing that he thinks (or claims to think) that he was the to blame for most of his father’s unhappiness, for that is certainly not a suggestion the narrative can support. There may be some kind of performance for readers going on here; I don’t know. But it’s very strange.

Although he spends a few years being raised by his grandparents, the boy is essentially brought up by his mother, who is of a character familiar to anyone who’s read a few tales of impoverished childhood: hard-working, practical, thrifty, stern, harsh, unused to displaying affection. She frequently berates, belittles and humiliates her son, causing him real emotional distress; yet it is her strength that ensures his survival. There’s a telling passage about her ambivalence to education, which she initially views as costly and useless – and potentially worse than that, for, as she notes, during the massacre, it was the intellectuals who were the first to be killed. Her attitude is shaped by her class: so terrified is she of his teachers (her social superiors), that she never visits his school to check up on his progress. When a teacher attempts to pay her a visit, she locks up the house and pretends to be away.

Although, as a young child, he is largely unconscious of the fact, the boy’s life and the lives of most of the people on the island are circumscribed by their poverty. The childhood mortality rate is high; disease is common, and medical treatment, other than in the form of folk remedies, often unavailable. Food shortages are common, and even when there’s enough to eat, the diet is poor. There are some memorable details: people digging out shit from their anuses with their fingers because they’re too constipated to defecate, pork being such a luxury that it is treated more as a medicine than as a food, pregnant women sniffing burning pig hairs to sate their hunger, babies eating dirt from the ground. Life is hard, grinding and monotonous. One day of idleness in the summer can result, as the author writes, to ten days without food in the winter; this leaves parents little time to look after their children, who, when they are not helping or in school, are either entrusted to the care of the elderly or left to their own devices. The characters of the island’s inhabitants are rough. Parents are said to be entertained by hitting their kids, and will often hit them to no other purpose. Children address each other by nicknames such as Chicken Butt, Twisted Doughnut, Burnt Skin and, the author’s own, Shit Crab (named after an ugly, foul-tasting crab). They play rough games and use, as do the adults, earthy and insulting speech, and sing ribald songs (but not all of the traditional songs included in the book are ribald; some are rather beautiful).

Readers with delicate sensibilities are advised that One Spoon on This Earth contains a lot about bodily fluids – and solids. The author compares modern toilets with the traditional open-air stone seat overlooking a pigpen common to many rural households; he prefers the latter (I must say, I’ve seen toilets in Korea that might leave me open to persuasion on this point). He is given cause for concern, however, when, in mid-shit, an enormous worm emerges from his arse; he worries that, as the pig jumps up in an attempt to devour it, he might have his balls accidentally bitten off. Many readers, I’m sure, will be nodding in recognition here. There’s a lot more shit in this book, as well as piss, snot, drool and semen; the other major bodily fluid is blood.

The passage dealing with the massacre is the by far the grimmest portion of the book. The boy, for the most part, catches only glimpses of the full horror; few who witnessed the worst of it would have been allowed to live. The ideological divisions opened up by the rebellion and its suppression are stark, but sometimes don’t count for much; it is enough to live in the same village as a rebel, or to be related to one, to have your life snuffed out. Some incidents of violence are not described from the author’s own memory, but taken from historical accounts and the testimony of survivors. One particularly awful scene sees cold, hungry civilians, including women and children, being hunted like rabbits in the snow. Perhaps even more striking is the way Hyun conveys the sense of slowly accumulating dread and terror that spreads from village to village, the uncertainty of always having cause to fear that your family will be next. Horrible, too, is the ease with which children accept the new dispensation imposed by the government forces:

They intuitively followed and gravitated toward the strong, shifting their allegiances without any reservations… Similar to fascists, the only acceptable code of conduct in the children’s world was conformity. In order to win the confidence of the people, the fascists who seized power with weapons needed to curry favor with the children first and use them to promote and appeal to the general public.

The book is filled with sharp insights such as these. On the credit side are many fine details (a cousin’s shoes are ‘shined so well that a fly would slide off them‘), some well-drawn characterizations and a fascinating picture of a vanished way of life. It is vivid, naive, powerful, repetitive, unsophisticated, funny, upsetting, incisive, clumsy, contradictory, bizarre and utterly fascinating. It is quite unlike anything else I’ve read. So much the pity, therefore, that its qualities are, again and again, undermined by the translation.

First of all, there are the obvious errors: ‘alter boy’ for ‘altar boy’, a mix-up between ‘Confucian’ and ‘Confucius’, and others. As this review notes, there are innumerable instances of omitted commas causing confusion and absurdity; I also found a few commas where they shouldn’t be (e.g. ‘extremely salty, soy bean paste‘). Readers might frown at a few untranslated Korean words that are given no explanation. Word choices are sometimes inexact (cats don’t meow horribly at night; they yowl, growl, snarl and hiss). The biggest problem is a general awkwardness suggestive either of haste or of an insufficient familiarity with idiomatic English, leading to many, many strange and/or convoluted sentences. Here are some of the worst:

I was like green vegetables suffering from greenflies.
Why the plural for vegetables? Do vegetables suffer?

When I went to his home and saw a deformed arm looking thing on a turntable producing music, I was so surprised. I was in state of shock because I saw something I had not seen before. But I wasn’t envious because I knew it was something I could not easily attain with a little effort.
‘Deformed arm looking thing’ is woefully clumsy; ‘state of shock’ is missing the required indefinite article; I had to reread the last sentence a few times before I could make sense of it. I think what’s meant is something along the lines of: ‘But I wasn’t envious because I knew it wasn’t something I could obtain easily with only a minimum of effort’, i.e. he’s not interested in acquiring anything that takes an effort to get your hands on.

I could not hear either their cheerful and loud voices or the water splashing underwater.
Why ‘cheerful and loud voices’? Surely ‘loud, cheerful voices’ would be better. Also, the last part seems to indicate that water is being splashed underwater, which makes no sense.

His nickname became Sling because he got back at Lefty for having shoved his head in the water by throwing rocks at laundered linens hanging to dry and making holes.
Wait, could you run that past me again?

When he said “Attention!” one side of his mouth was twisted and when he said “At ease!” the opposite side.
Well, yes, I know what you’re trying to say.

I had not like the lukewarm water before, but strangely, afterwards I had come to like it.
This sentence makes a complete hash of the pluperfect.

I should note that I read One Spoon on This Earth in its Kindle version, so I don’t know if all the problems I’ve noted are shared by the paper edition, but the review I linked to above certainly found a great deal to complain about. It’s distressing that as respected a publisher as the Dalkey Archive Press should put out such a slipshod piece of work. I have no idea if the book, in its original language, is anything like a literary masterpiece; I’d be inclined to guess that it isn’t. But it is surely capable of being better served than it is here. As it is, I would still recommend the book as something very much worth reading, but let’s hope, nonetheless, that a better translation comes along one day.