As the book opens, we encounter a small village which is somehow untouched by the Korean war which seems to have passed them by. The old order, personified by Old Hwang, village elder, still survives.
There are Reds in the nearby town. The presumption is that it will be from the communists that the main threat to the status quo (and the former yangban’s authority) will come.
But under the surface, change has already started. Hwang has only one son, and is already in debt to the local miller, representing the nouveaux riches, who actually owns his property. Hwang’s power is a sham, ready to topple at the slightest pressure, but that pressure originates partly from the liberating “World Army” led by General Megado (MacArthur) and partly from his own lack of experience with the world outside and inability to deal with difficult situations decisively.
The first crisis comes when US soldiers rape a young village widow. The villagers look to the elder for a lead as to how to react to the situation: to offer support or to ostracise her. Because of his indecision, ostracism is what happens. Thus is laid the foundation for Ollye’s detachment from and reaction against village society, and her abrupt acceptance of serving the sexual needs of the occupying troops as the only way to make a living.
Much of the story unfolds through the eyes of the village children, a gang who play together, going on expeditions to try to locate the secret cave whence a mythical hero once sprang on his silver stallion to rout the Mongol hordes. It’s unclear whether we are supposed to think of Megado and his tank divisions as the modern equivalent of the 7-foot high hero on his fiery steed — probably not given that during the course of the novel the Chinese invade, pushing the once invincible Megado back southwards.
Much of Korea’s coming encounter with modernisation is presaged in the novel’s pages. The boys, who previously waged only fist-fights with the gang from the neighbouring village, escalate their warfare using weapons salvaged from the UN forces’ scrapheap, while the authority of Elder Hwang is completely overturned by the previously subservient widow turned feisty tart Ollye.
As the novel closes, all the villagers evacuate in fear of the advancing Chinese. There is the hope that the villagers will restart with a clean slate down south, but the clear expectation is that it will be the tart who’s learned the ways of the foreigners, and the nouveau riche proto-industrialist, rather than the traditional village elder, who will thrive in the new order.
Note: according to the author, at talks in London on 25 and 26 April 2018, the publication information given by Soho Press at the front of their edition (and quoted at the top of this article) is incorrect: the novel was not “translated from the Korean by the author”. It was originally written in English, and was subsequently translated into Korean. Ahn Jung-hyo is a prolific translator into Korean.
- Books of The Times; Korean’s Novel Is Anti-War But Not Anti-American, New York Times, 21 Feb 1990