By Hwang Sok-yong
Translated by Jay Oh
539 pp. Seven Stories Press. $30
One must never speak ill of nonchronological storytelling in America, where it is considered innately more serious than the other kind. But it is worth pondering the fact that flashbacks are nowhere more common than in North Korea. A writer will start with a woman getting a medal, say, then explain how she got there; this approach leaves less room for intellectual uncertainty and divergent responses. I make the point because although Hwang Sok-yong’s “Old Garden” was written south of the 38th parallel, it resembles a North Korean narrative in structural as in ideological ways. This is not a good thing. If I never read another mournful account of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it will be too soon.
“The Old Garden” begins interestingly enough. The description of a former political prisoner’s first day of freedom after almost 20 years, when the mere sight of open space exhausts him, is vivid and moving. (Hwang, one of South Korea’s most famous novelists, was himself a dissident who served prison time after an unsanctioned visit to the North.) Unfortunately the protagonist, Hyun Woo, soon learns that his lover and comrade Yoon Hee has died of cancer, whereupon the novel starts going back and forth in time. We read her letters to him, his cards to her, and so on. Much of this correspondence is of the implausible kind in which the recipient is reminded in great detail of shared experiences, but the transition to Yoon Hee’s notebooks from the 1980s does not help matters. To recount the student movement’s struggle against Chun Doo Hwan in such a disjointed and meandering fashion is to take all the drama out of it.
Jay Oh’s translation is basically functional, but it feels too youthful and distinctly American. The standard Korean expression for “24 hours a day” is rendered into English as “24/7,” a word meaning “shy” becomes “totally embarrassed,” and so on; this is hardly how a middle-aged man emerging from a long prison term would express himself. Other characters are made to swear in ways that could not seem less Korean: “Jesus, my mouth is watering.” The original at least has more gravitas — but that’s about it. Especially baffling is the author’s choice of a narrator. Hyun Woo is a man for whom “everything is unexciting and ordinary,” and he obviously wants us to feel the same way.
Indeed, the students’ opposition to the Chun regime is taken so much for granted that they barely seem to think at all, let alone engage in moral or philosophical debate. Does Hwang know how fatuous they sound? His later novel “The Guest” (which preceded this one into English translation) is a more nuanced affair, but here there is little sign of a critical or ironic distance between the author and his characters. When Hyun Woo says the Kwangju massacre of 1980 made him realize “our enemy was not the North,” we are evidently to agree that this was the only possible conclusion. And when another man explains his newfound sympathy for Pyongyang with the words “I just decided to be on their side, O.K.?” (the Valley Girl tones of the translation are not always inappropriate), we are to feel something other than the urge to hurl him across the DMZ. Yoon Hee, who is clearly the author’s favorite, grows more insufferable with every page. Having chosen to live in West Berlin, she is horrified when East Germany collapses, and worries that North Korea may follow suit. “This is not the solution. At least they had the correct beginning, didn’t they?”
The striving for simplicity and emotionality among students bewildered by long reading lists is, as the historian Ernst Nolte once wrote, “almost disgustingly easy to explain.” Harder to understand is why a man of Hwang’s age and experience would want to present this striving as something the world needs more of. (According to the publisher, Hwang is organizing a “peace train” that will go from Paris through North to South Korea — though I suspect he wants to stay on until Stockholm.) Having studied in Seoul in the mid-1980s, and witnessed the bravery of the demonstrators on many occasions, I was ready to like Hwang’s characters for helping to end military rule. Alas, he has so little apparent respect for the ensuing bourgeois democracy that he describes them cursing the transition to it. The hunch that we are dealing here with an ideology even sillier than Marxism is confirmed in one of Yoon Hee’s lines: “It’s a fight that has continued for over a hundred years since we opened up the port.” In other words, Korea’s problems began when it ceased to be the Hermit Kingdom. The penny drops: this is how the students could have fought so heroically against a pro-American dictator in Seoul, yet found so little cause to criticize the paranoid nationalist thugs in Pyongyang. “The Old Garden” thus raises an interesting question despite itself. Should we admire these people for making South Korea less like North Korea, if they were aiming for the opposite effect?
B. R. Myers, the author of “A Reader’s Manifesto,” is a researcher at Dongseo University in South Korea. His forthcoming book, “The Cleanest Race,” is about North Korea’s worldview.