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Making vivid colors from faded history'Dead Silence' author uses untruth to examine massacre
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승인 2011.03.26  17:45:53
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“Artists use lies to tell the truth…”
-Alan Moore, “V for Vendetta

▲ East Bridge Books

In his book of short stories “Dead Silence and Other Stories of the Jeju Massacre,” author Hyun Kil-un paints an honest, though factually inaccurate picture. Hyun approaches larger issues of truth through a series of questions: what does paranoia do to a society? What drives people to revolt? How can you heal wounds when you can’t even inspect them? In fact, factual inaccuracy is kind of the point, as Hyun asks the big question: how can you see a past that’s been so completely buried?

The book accepts, for the most part, the Rhee administration’s official narrative: “red island,” very dangerous, as many communists as it has mogi (mosquitos). The stories paint a picture of an island saturated with dedicated Marxist partisans. The protagonist of “The Dawn” is a life-long Communist charged with indoctrinating the youth of Jeju. The title story “Dead Silence” follows a band of guerrillas from a Saint Crispin’s Day speech laced with “comrade” and other stereotypical Commie-speak until their final act — a profoundly unsuccessful suicide mission. In “The Homecoming” the narrator’s father is a Communist who escapes to Japan just before the April 3 Massacre, abandoning his family for his ideals (or perhaps just for self-preservation).

The problem is, there is simply no real-world evidence to support the existence of a network of Communists on Jeju Island at that time. “People hardly had guns...” according to Kim Chang Hoo, head of The Jeju 4.3 Research Institute. “...they were so poor that they could not afford guns.”

The people, by and large, were farmers— too uneducated to fully understand what words like “communist” and “capitalist” even meant, too busy to spend time learning, and often too poor to afford food, let alone the guns and ammunition that a paramilitary organization would require to even consider a revolt. Instead, the violence from the Jeju people was sparked by frustration when faced with two separate Korean leaders. They weren’t communists. They were unificationists, troubled (as most are now) by a divided Korea.

While Hyun accepts the premise of Jeju as a communist haven, he also focuses on the people erroneously accused of being Communists or Communist sympathizers. “Grandfather” takes place years after the massacre, when the narrator’s dying grandfather is possessed by the spirit of his son (who was accused of being a Communist and executed). The spirit comes back to plead with the the now-mayor of the village, who had intimate knowledge of the spirit’s innocence and did not come forward to save him.

“Dead Silence,” which starts off with an image so in-line with the past government’s propaganda, ends with the deception and massacre of a village’s worth of people. After making them move the bodies of the unsuccessful guerrilla battle, the military captain orders the civilians: “‘Raise your hands if you know any of the dead commandos.’” Only when they’ve raised their hands, does he explain how to know a Communist is to be a Communist, before his troops open fire.

Hyun also, perhaps more importantly, warns against simplifying people’s motivations. His characters are far from the “mindless commie-drones” the government at the time painted them as. Hyun’s characters— especially the hardcore Communists— constantly question their own actions.

“The Dream of a Dragon Horse,” first in the collection, doesn’t even directly connect to the April 3 Massacre. It takes place long ago, even before the Japanese occupation. It tells the story of a virtuous landowner on Jeju Island who, while very kind and just to the peasants under him, refuses to give his full tribute to the king. He’s tortured to death for his stand and while being tortured, screams for no one to help him; he does not want the peasants to sacrifice themselves for his benefit.

The story only connects thematically at the end. The last paragraph talks of peasants dreaming of his son, riding a dragon horse, wailing and disappearing into the night. The rumor spreads and grows, the beginning of a powder keg of resentment against the mainland. The epilogue (if it existed) would show the resentment growing with Japanese occupation, and then finally igniting with frustration over the separate elections held by the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. In many ways, this is the most important story in the collection. It is the only real attempt to show the Jeju islanders not as people inexplicably embracing communist philosophy— but rather as a tuning fork, sent vibrating from centuries of subjugation and rapidly branded with the name of that era’s boogieman.

But how do we know? The majority of stories in the collection either take place long after the end of the April 3 Massacre or are framed in that time with flashbacks to the 1940s to 1950s. How can new generations possibly find truth of the events through misremembered details, a history buried and blurred intentionally as a propaganda tool and unintentionally as a psychological coping mechanism?

Hyun lets his characters struggle to find factual accuracy. But the book “Dead Silence” is fiction, and by writing these stories as fiction, he puts himself above asking “Did this happen?” and busies himself answering another question: “If this did happen, what would it be like?” In one way, by expanding on a factually inaccurate account of events, Hyun does no favor to history. But on another level, wherever his fabricated situations collide with reality, they breathe new life to a faded and abused past.

At the end of “Dead Silence,” the final story of the collection, Hyun describes the dead: “...with their blood-bruised faces, bloodstained clothes, and dirt-covered bodies, they no longer looked like human beings.”

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