There is a saying I heard long ago that if you want facts read a newspaper, but if you want truth read fiction.
This statement came hurtling back to me when reading the latest English translation of Hyun Ki-young’s celebrated short story “Sun-i Samch’on” (ISBN 978-89-94006-22-2) that depicts personal trauma and the path to recovery following the Jeju Massacre. (The Jeju Massacre lasted from 1947 to 1954 and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 30,000 Jeju residents.)
I previously reviewed the first English translation of this story back in 2010. Titled “Aunt Suni” and translated by Song Jong Do, the novella was confusing, almost unreadable, and ultimately did not do justice to the original story. I did recommend reading it though if for no other reason than to have a personal account of the Jeju Massacre.
Four years since the publication of “Aunt Suni” by the publishing house Gak, Asia Publishers has released “Sun-i Samch’on” as part of its bilingual modern Korean literature series and is a book this reviewer highly recommends from a literary standpoint as well as for its ability to act as a window into this complicated and traumatic aspect of the island’s history and culture.
The story begins with the main character and narrator, Sang-su, returning to Jeju, his place of birth, for his grandfather’s memorial ceremony after having lived in Seoul as a corporate executive for eight years with his wife. For Sang-su, Jeju is a place that represents depression and poverty, a place that he has spent his entire life trying to escape.
On returning to his village (referred to in the story as West Village, but for those with some history of the massacre will be able to deduce that it is Bukchon village), two things become apparent; one to the reader and the other to the character. The first is that many families in the village are simultaneously holding memorial services, and the second is that his Aunt (Samch’on in Korean) Suni has committed suicide only a few weeks previous.
Sang-su is devastated on hearing the news of his aunt’s death, especially since only two-months prior Suni was living with his family in Seoul tending house.
Coming in at around 80 pages, the entire story takes place at the home of Sang-su’s eldest uncle with the narrative following the conversation of the male members of the family interposed with flashbacks by Sang-su.
The first quarter of the book is dialog between the characters about Aunt Suni’s mental anguish and repeated nervous breakdowns with Sang-su replaying the time she spent at his house in Seoul before a shift in narrative occurs. When Sang-su’s father’s male first cousin flippantly says, “Ms. Sun-i enjoyed an extra lease on life,” dialog lessens and flashbacks of the massacre takeover, filling in the subtext of the conversation.
What follows is a beautifully written personal history of the massacre from Sang-su’s point of view, who experienced it when he was seven years old. Sang-su’s flashbacks takeover the narrative, and the conversation then adds more realism to Sang-su’s retelling by splicing in the other family members’ experiences as well as Aunt Suni’s. To the reader, it feels like this is one of the first times the family has discussed this sensitive topic.
Through this, Hyun is highlighting that then, in the late ’70s, oral history was the only way the Jeju Massacre was known by those that had not experience it. Before the democratization of Korea, talk of the Jeju Massacre was forbidden, and to do so was seen as being against the government, and Hyun himself was given no exception from this unwritten rule.
When the book of short stories that contained “Sun-i Samch’on” first came out in 1978, Hyun was arrested under the pretence of having attended a recent protest. He was then tortured for three days before being released, and was told to never write about the massacre again.
This short story is the first public reference to the Jeju Massacre, and for this reviewer, is enough of a reason to read it.
The character of Aunt Suni stands as a metaphor for the citizens of Jeju who survived the massacre and struggled through an oppressive environment that not only wanted to pretend this atrocity never occurred but punished those who publicly mentioned it.
Though not entirely accurate, this story breathes truth and gives light to a dark aspect of Jeju’s history arguably better than any newspaper article could.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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