Richard E. Kim: The Martyred
First published by George Braziller, 1964
Published in Penguin Classics 2011, with introduction by Heinz Insu Fenzl and Preface by Susan Choi. 199 pp
Fourteen North Korean priests are rounded up by the communists just before North Korea invades the South in June 1950. Twelve of the priests are shot, and two mysteriously survive. The massacre is uncovered by the South Korean military when they capture Pyongyang in October the same year. Of the two survivors, one has gone insane from his experiences and the other, Pastor Shin, is staying enigmatically tight-lipped. It falls to military intelligence to find out what happened.
For the South, commemorating the deaths of the twelve murdered priests as martyrs would have great propaganda benefits, rallying the people against communism and giving strength to the Christians of North Korea. But what if the twelve priests were not in fact martyrs but renounced their faith in their last minutes? Should people be told that? Is the Truth something that should be told at all costs, or only if it isn’t harmful? Following the execution of the last communist witness to the atrocity, only Pastor Shin knows the truth of what actually happened, and he is at first prepared to keep silent, at great personal cost, in order to prevent the truth being known, or in order to prevent a falsehood from being corrected. Is silence the best approach? What is in the interests of the military, or of the souls of the Christian congregations of North Korea? Should the truth be told? Should a beneficial falsehood be allowed to persist? Should it be reinforced by an additional falsehood in the interests of everyone?
The novel asks some important questions, while also entertaining us with a strong narrative of Captain Lee’s investigation of what actually happened on the night in question. On the level of the detective novel, the story is well constructed and obeys a lot of the conventions of the genre – down to the detective’s boss, Colonel Chang, who always seems to know more than he is letting on. And despite the intensely moral dimension to the book, the writing is fast-paced. But the narrative focuses on dialogue rather than scene setting. And it was hardly surprising that the book was transferred to the stage in 19641. The opening chapter provides a very brief back-story to the two main actors, Captain Lee and Captain Park (whose father was one of the martyrs), but other than that at a rough estimate more than 80% of the text is in the form of dialogue.
The introduction, by Heinz Insu Fenzl (Memories of My Ghost Brother) contains a useful overview of Korean American literature, starting with Younghill Kang (East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee) and Richard E Kim2 as the first generation, and continuing via Nora Okja Keller and Gloria Hahn through to Susan Choi (The Foreign Student) who writes a foreword describing her reluctant first encounter with the work of the elder statesman Kim.
While the novel is set in the Korean War, the theme is universal. The combination of the deep moral questions raised, combined with the detective story in which we try to find out our own version of the truth of what happened, makes for an outstandingly good read.