Like the Indian novelist R.K. Narayan, who repeatedly set his characters down in the kitchens, back alleys and yards of his very own magical creation — the city of Malgudi — Korean writer Kim Sok-pom returns time and again in his work to the island of Cheju-do.
Where Narayan’s location was fictional, Kim’s is brutally real, springing from the experience of the zainichi, Koreans brought to Japan as forced labor during the colonial period.
A significant minority, they face the dual identity challenge of having to balance their Korean heritage with Japanese residency and an association with either North or South Korea.
While resisting Japanization, Kim writes all his fiction in Japanese. The ethos of the prose, however, in contrast to more literary assimilated writers of Korean descent like Masaaki Tachihara, remains distinctively Korean in its tone and affinities. The novel is set in 1948, in the days after the Cheju-do Rebellion, during which martial law was imposed by the Korean presidential dictator, Syngman Rhee, with the aid of security forces and special units, like the notorious anti-communist zealots known as the “Northwest Youth Group.”
Kim describes a time of terrible purges, when the slightest provocation brought incarceration, execution or the arbitrary arrests of suspects — men and women with barely an inkling of political theory. Even common citizens were able to implicate fellow villagers they bore grudges against. This is the background of the novel, which is set on a landmass the tourist authorities have since dubbed “Korea’s honeymoon island.”
In this superheated climate, even the color red could land the most innocent person in trouble. In “farming villages where they hung cayenne peppers on their thatched roofs, where they turned bright red in the autumn sun,” Kim writes, “even this spectacle of poetic seasonal imagery, the hanging of the cayenne peppers, became a taboo.”
The author describes the degree of physical, retributive violence toward the island and the Communist partisans, writing that “one of the villages close to the coast had already been soaked in gasoline, prepared for incineration. The whole surface of the island was turning black, not gradually but instantly turning into wasteland.”
The name you go by takes on enormous significance, with Kim critical of the Japanese colonial period policy of soshi kaimei, in which Koreans were assigned Japanese names. In refusing to use his real or assigned name, Mandogi, the principal character in this extraordinary novel, creates an unsettling quandary for those around him. When Kim writes that “People feel strange around the nameless,” he is crystallizing one of the main quests of the book, namely, to define what it means to be human.
Testing loyalties takes on a more severe form in a flashback to the colonial period, when Mandogi and fellow corvee laborers at the chromium mines of Hokkaido are ordered to beat to death the suspended body of a fellow countryman who has tried to escape from the camp.
Mandogi, an orphan of mixed lineage, seeks calm and repose as a resident assistant at the Kannon Temple, a place of worship set in the depths of a cryptomeria forest, only to find that the manageress of this sanctuary is a neurotic sadist happy to find a weaker subject to vent her grievances on.
This is the kind of existential novel in which the author, the creator of persona, is outraged by the barbarism meted out on his character, while the fictional Mandogi meets his ordeals with equanimity.
Treated with contempt for being a half-wit, Mandogi turns out to be a devout Buddhist who chooses the path of forbearance when dealing with adversity. The Buddhist notion of impermanence and flux is also invoked in the fate of the islanders.
A casualty of the random violence practiced by government forces against the Communists, Mandogi’s temple, his only real home, having been “demolished and soaked in gasoline,” vanishes in flames. Fire as a symbol of destruction, but also purification, suffuses the novel.
In the end, unlike the deranged acolyte, who sets fire to Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion in Yukio Mishima’s novel of the same name, Mandogi torches the temple that was his last sanctuary out of a sense of compassion, saving it from the sullied, murderous intentions of the authorities.
Like the atrocities committed by Korean soldiers serving on the U.S. side during the Vietnam War, Kim scrutinizes a little known slice of history some would rather see buried. Or go up in flames.