The following article by 2008 Nobel Prize-winning writer J. M. G. Le Clezio appeared in the March 2009 editions of France’s GEO magazine. We reprint it in three parts with the kind permission of GEO.
There is a certain melancholy about islands. We don’t know where it comes from, but the feeling holds you. Perhaps it’s the wind, and the grayish green tint that impregnates everything, the rocks, the tree trunks, the springs and even the sea. In Jeju, that feeling is even stronger than usual. You’re at the edge of the world, as they say. At the door between the infiniteness of the Pacific Ocean and the vastness of the most extensive and populous continent on the planet. A door or a mural. I can imagine what Hendrik Hamel, one of the first explorers to come to these parts, must have felt just moments before crashing into this island which, for some unknown reason, he called Quelpaert. The storm, the wind, the sea pushing its giant waves and, in a flash of lightning, between two gusts of wind, the massive silhouette of the volcanic Mount Halla, at nearly 2,000 meters tall, dominating the black basaltic shoreline. Without a doubt he felt that he, his ship and crew stood before the gates of hell. Later, after the shipwreck, the survivors trekked along the gray coastline. They must have done a scan of the horizon and hastily concluded that they were stuck on a deserted island like Selkirk, the sailor who inspired Robinson Crusoe. Dark cliff-faces, worn by wind and water forming fantastical silhouettes and the vegetation, more like a lush fur-pelt than a forest onto which the storm clouds emptied themselves. As we approach the island, all is silent; the first music we hear is the soft twittering of birds. I can picture the footprints left by the Dutch sailors in the black stones as they walked, their path obscured by wind and waves as little by little, they are encompassed by the warmth of the greenery and they take in the first scents of the island: the acidity of the forest nearby, the sulfur of the lava, the sweet perfume of the cane and wild orchids. It’s a moment of grace and peace, given that they’ve just escaped the clenches of death – while many of their comrades perished in the sea – and that the gates of hell have not opened for them. They believe themselves to be alone. They will learn that they are mistaken. For up in the temple, the alarm bell is sounding and an army, mounted on sturdy Mongolian horses, branding lances and blades has arrived on their beach.
▲ An ethereal image of rolling oreums taken from Mt. Halla National Park Photo by Shin Yong Man
Hendrik Hamel and his crew remained prisoners in Korea for more than ten years. Exiled to the south, they escaped with the help of some fishermen and eventually regained their native Holland. But I imagine that, despite the way they were treated (beaten and starved), for the rest of their lives, they would have clung to the nostalgia of their first moments on Jeju: the beauty of the bay, the majesty of the mountain, the warm round little houses of the fishermen, like turtle shells, where they rested their first nights, the taste of rice boiled in the bark of bamboo trees, the brown seaweed soup and the deep red kimchi, the cups of soju that warms the body and all of the fruit they were served, the soft tangerines, the honey-sweet persimmons. Today, Jeju maintains this blend of the soft and the bitter, the sadness and the joy. The green and the black. The melancholy of the island, which we can regain at the easternmost point of the island, in a place called Seongsan Ilchulbong – Sunrise Peak.
This is a volcanic cone shooting up from the sea, created during the last of the phenomenal eruptions which rocked the south of Korea and gave birth to Mount Halla. It is a black peak, facing the rising sun – it’s here where pilgrims from all over Korea flock to witness the magical spectacle of the sun rising over their country. On New Year’s Day, the rays of the sun shine good fortune on the pilgrims, a fate which will last all year long. This peak reminds me of another important site, Le Morne of Maurice Island. The landscape bears the same sense of tragedy. This is the peak which the villagers of Seongsan gazed upon on the morning of Sept. 25, 1948, when the military unloaded them from trucks onto the beach to be executed. I can imagine how they felt at that moment, their eyes cast upon the familiar shadow of the peak as it reached out from the flat surface of the ocean while the gentle yellow of the coming dawn crept into the sky. At Le Morne, on Maurice Island, revolting slaves climbed to the very top above the Indian Ocean and, when they saw the military arrive, they leaped into the emptiness.
One of the most sinister chapters of the cold war between the communists and the “free world” unrolled here, before Sunrise Peak. On April 3 (Sa-Sam in Korean), in Jeju, a massacre of the population by the military and the police started because of a trivial incident. Supported by the American authorities, inspired by the extreme policies of McCarthyism, and supervised by the local military governor of the time, Colonel Flower, the Korean army carried out operation “Scorched Land,” which would cost the lives of tens of thousands of Jeju citizens, about a tenth of the population.
▲ Bakrokeadam, that lake atop Halla Mountain Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
Today, the memory of this cruel war is erasing itself. Children bathe in the sea and play in the sand that once drank up the blood of their parents. Every morning, families on vacation hike to the top of Sunrise Peak to watch the sun spread over the sea. Even Kang Joong Hoon, poet and hotel owner, who lost his father and his uncle during the genocide, has given in with the passage of time. If he remembers only one thing – each of his poems carries the mark of the terrible events of Sept. 25 – it’s the necessity of paying no heed. When I ask him questions about his memories, that is to say: how can he continue to live in the village with those who executed his family, he responds by telling me a story. A woman from Seongsan saw her husband being taken in by the police on that fateful day. The truck drove away down the small roads of the village. But she never found his body among the corpses on the beach.
Months passed without her knowing what became of her husband. For a single woman with young children, those were dangerous times. At every instant, she feared that she herself would be arrested, assassinated. But the ways of destiny are strange and unknown. One of the police officers who commanded that section of the island fell in love with this woman and asked for her hand in marriage. Despite her heartache, she accepted and the police officer became father to the children of the man he’d had killed and raised them and protected them as his own. This tale, simultaneously touching and appalling, is part of the spirit of Jeju, of the philosophy both sad and full of the spirit of life that impregnates this island.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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