Petal essay contest Salon des Refusés 1

Earlier this year the Korean Literature Translation Institute sponsored an essay competition based on Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls. Now that the finalists have been announced, Michael Rank is the first to offer his submission for publication on the pages of LKL.

Choe Yun
Ch’oe Yun

The Kwangju (Gwangju) massacre of 1980 has been called the most traumatic event in the history of the Republic of Korea, yet for years writers were forbidden by the military dictatorship that ruled the country for breathing a word about it. After democracy was finally installed, one of the first authors who dared to examine the background to that terrible event and the motivations of those who participated was Ch’oe Yun in her novella There A Petal Silently Falls.

Ch’oe could hardly be termed a political writer, however–words like “democracy”, “dictatorship and “revolution” do not occur in the story–and she herself has stated in an interview: “I am in no way an ideological writer. No matter how lofty-sounding a political ideology, I can’t help viewing it with suspicion. I can go along with the idea that ideologies are used to defend certain ways of life, but for me only the literary realm is broad enough to include all ideology.” Another story in the collection, Whisper Yet, is more overtly political insofar as one of the characters is a left-wing political refugee on the South Korean government’s wanted list. The narrator’s father, on the other hand, has fled the North because of he is appalled by the brutality and intolerance of the Communist government and has provided refuge for the farmhand in the South. But neither story is mainly concerned with politics, and both are much more concerned with atmosphere and feelings.

The atmosphere in There A Petal is one of a violent, relentless nightmare punctuated with only occasional thin rays of hope. The focus of the story is a young girl, whose mother and brother are dead and who is abducted and raped by a young man who follows her through a graveyard. The narrator is constantly changing – sometimes it is impersonal, sometimes the girl herself, sometimes the abductor and sometimes it is a group of friends of the girl’s dead brother, and the frequent changes in narrator help to give the story a swirling, unstable atmosphere. This reflects Ch’oe’s fascination with the ideas of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin who rejected conventional narrative and proposed a revolutionary theory of literature based on “chronotopes” or “time spaces” in which voices and time overlap in an intricately connected relationship. It also means that Ch’oe is more interested in memory and subjective reactions to events than with narrative. This is borne out by the two other, very different stories in the anthology, which are likewise little concerned with conventional structures of plot or causation.

It is surely significant that when Ch’oe Yun first went to France to study she wrote her thesis on the Vietnamese-born French author and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, who is likewise much more concerned with memory and its subjectivities than with plot or characterisation. This is nowhere more apparent than in her best known film Hiroshima Mon Amour, with its elliptical narrative structures, multiple flashbacks and parallel montages, all of which have their literary analogues in There A Petal.

The techniques Ch’oe uses are fascinating, but as a journalist who knows more about China than Korea, I was particularly interested in the subtlety of the allusions to the Kwangju massacre, which could not help but remind me of the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing nine years later. I may well have missed the allusions to Kwangju if were not for the clear signals given in the translators’ Afterword and which Ch’oe has given in published interviews. True, the story refers to “rumours of a massacre in a city in the south” and people searching for the girl have been looking for her since May – the month of the Kwangju massacre – but those are the most explicit references that I could find in the text to the mass killing of demonstrators in a city in south-western Korea almost 30 years ago. For while Tiananmen is remembered with horror in the West, Kwangju is all but forgotten and Professor Ch’oe has done the world a service by reminding us of it.

Remembering Gwangju
Remembering Gwangju. (Photo: Sanjeewa Liyanage/AHRC)

For me, much of the power of the story is derived from the fact that the protagonists are not members of the educated elite but seem to be working class market traders and similar – the young girl’s mother is barely literate in fact and needs help reading a petition whose contents are not divulged. (I asked Professor Ch’oe about the demonstrators at her workshop and she confirmed she had intended to depict them as coming from a wide spectrum of society, just as those killed in the Kwangju massacre embraced a broad range of city residents, and were not just or mainly students). There is a mysterious allusion to supplicants and to covert activity that “was just a cover for that other business that she [the girl’s mother] was caught up in.” What the petition is about we are not told, but my impression is that the supplicants’ demands are more about day-to-day living than grandiose appeals for parliamentary democracy or an end to military oppression.

The supplicants seem to be at the mercy of sinister men in suits who make the girl’s mother scream with fury, yet also give her an extraordinary strength so that she forces them to flee from her anger, rushing away in a taxi. But there is little neighbourhood solidarity: “The neighbors didn’t try to stop her, but they didn’t take sides with her either. Most of them just stood around tsk-tsking and staring.” This is a terrible indictment of the former dictatorship which finally collapsed in the aftermath of the Kwangju massacre: even in the face of inexcusable bullying, neighbours dare not come to the help of neighbours for fear that they will be the next victim.

Ch’oe Yun has clearly read her Kafka, and I also thought of Kafka when the ravaged, hysterical girl tells how she was “afraid I’d grow feelers and sprout green wings from my armpits.” Gregor Samsa, who wakes up to find he has turned into a beetle in one of Kafka’s most famous stories, Metamorphosis, would have known just how she felt.

It is not clear exactly how the girl’s mother died, but she is frequently described, somewhat surrealistically, as being full of holes, apparently bullet holes, which further suggests terrible violence on the part of the authorities.

But the girl’s memory of all this is confused and is persistently obstructed by a “black curtain” that, perhaps mercifully, prevents her from recovering her memories of these events. All she seems to remember clearly is that she was wearing her best red dress which gets torn and filthy and symbolises the terrifying violence which she has been caught up in. (Incidentally a red silk dress also figures prominently in Margaret Drabble’s vivid and sometimes terrifying imagining of Korean court life The Red Queen – I can’t help wondering whether this is mere coincidence or if there is some deeper significance).

Perhaps the most nightmarish section of There A Petal is when the girl is on a train: “I feel like there’s a sponge inside my head that’s sucking up all my memories …. The train was rushing toward something terrible, but I couldn’t tell what.” Everybody else seems to be asleep – or they don’t want to know what the clearly terrified girl is so frightened of or what dreadful things have happened to her. She sees an ugly face watching her on the other side of a glass door, and, hideous though it is, she cannot take her eyes off it, “a face as ugly as the stink buried in my bowels, a murderous face among a den of goblins”. The horror is increased by the fact that she is convinced her mother and brother would recognise the face and that it was “The face I remember from before it all happened. The face I saw that morning before I went out with Mama, when I put on my fancy maroon dress, looked in the mirror and said goodbye for the last time.”

Later, the girl seems to blame herself for her mother’s death: “Mother had a dream, and I, her daughter, had crushed it.

“I can never go back to our home …”

Her propensity to blame herself for all that has happened is underlined when she is told – by a voice that seems to come out of her dying mother’s chest – that she had been trapped in the melee by her mother’s “hardened grip” and that “you cruelly freed yourself from her clawlike fingers … And finally – you stepped on Mama’s tightly flexed arm and freed your hand. Her skin and muscles felt slippery. You stepped on them as hard as you could …” The memories of all this are too terrible, and the girl is told that she shook her head repeatedly to “get rid of the image of your mother flickering so clearly before your eyes.” These are not the girl’s own memories, however; they are what she is told she remembers, but in this story, and apparently for Ch’oe Yun herself, our memories and what we are told we remember feed on each other and are ultimately indistinguishable.

The girl feels paranoid, with people “waiting for me armed with sticks and timbers, night and day, lanterns lit.” She has nowhere to go but her brother’s grave: “I’m not afraid anymore. I’ll rip off that black curtain and my ugly face will rise like the moon over his grave…”

Passages such as this give rise to occasional hope, but they are soon crushed. The story ends with the friends of the girl’s brother gathering for a ceremony on the first anniversary of his death, but the ritual is interrupted by a man who has clues from a newspaper article that could lead to the girl. This brings them to a man whom she had apparently followed home, but although he speaks to them for hours he is of no help, and all they can do is “imagine a girl we had never seen, a smile that seemed to hover above us, a withered flower in her hair, and her maroon dress swaying as she dropped lightly to a sitting position in front of a grave that didn’t contain her brother.” Far from a happy ending, certainly, but the girl is smiling and her brother isn’t in his grave, so maybe there is hope after all.