Hwang Sun-won’s Trees on a Slope is one of the few Korean novels directly dealing with the Korean War to be available in English. That’s not to say it’s anything like the bludgeoning experience of Kang Je-gyu’s blockbuster film Taegugki. Although one of the characters has the distinction of escaping from being a prisoner of the Chinese, and the other two have a bit of excitement escaping through enemy lines, the war itself is rather tangential to the narrative, which is more about the psychological state of three friends:
- The innocently romantic and emotionally immature Tong-ho, who wallows in the fond memories of time spent with his distant sweetheart
- The bold, confident and wealthy Hyon-tae, who bankrolls the visits to the drinking and whoring dens
- The pedestrian but dependable Yun-gu who alone emerges from the war and its aftermath with any future
It is tempting to search for allegory in the different fates of the friends. Certainly the hard work of Yun-gu is the characteristic to which Korea would look to drive her future success, while the fate of Hyon-tae indicates that family wealth (perhaps earned at the cost of collaboration with the Japanese oppressors) is of no use without a modicum of application and direction. Perhaps Tong-ho’s fate shows that the age of innocence is now rudely finished – or perhaps is meant to show that well-meaning efforts to educate someone too soon can end in disaster.
Perhaps the gloomiest aspect of the story is the fate of the women – disowned, raped, disposable creatures at the mercy of inadequate menfolk. And there is the pessimistic thesis of Hyon-tae that, like fruit trees, mankind needs to be pruned in order to thrive. Certainly a number of lives are lost in this book, and one is left hoping that the pruning has not been too drastic. But with Yun-gu, the only real survivor of the three colleagues, too burdened with his current labours and past experiences to build a future with one of the surviving women, the outlook is bleak.
The novel is well translated, and comes highly recommended.