Petal essay contest Salon des Refusés 2

The LKL Editor contributes his own unsuccessful entry into the “There a Petal Silently Falls” essay contest.

Ghosts of Kwangju

Petal coverCh’oe Yun’s There a petal silently falls is an interesting choice for a first Korean literature essay contest. Elusive in content, obscure in characterisation and insubstantial in length, it encourages a discussion not about the book itself but about its historical backdrop. The Kwangju uprising is a recent wound in Korea’s history, and while the nation has assimilated and moved on from Kwangju in the way that China has not yet responded to Tiananmen, the regionalism which in part gave rise to the incident is still a feature of the country’s political landscape.

So much easier would have been to choose one of the titles from the Colonial period. Three Generations by Yom Sang-seop (1931) or Peace under Heaven by Chae Man-sik (1938) are both enjoyable reads, give ample scope for character analysis and, if the mood were to take one, would enable one to give vent to righteous indignation about the behaviour of the colonial oppressor. Or perhaps a novel from the aftermath of the Korean war, lamenting the still-unresolved division of families and encouraging thoughts of reunification, or decrying the dependence of Korea on US support. But maybe such choices would have been too obvious.

Can anything be read in to the choice? Maybe the contest was not designed by a committee making a conscious political decision, but instead the selection was made by someone who just happens to find There a petal silently falls a stimulating read.

Regardless, in finding a Kwangju novel an acceptable topic for an inaugural Korean literature essay competition the organisers are to a certain extent in tune with the times. One of the biggest films of 2007 was the blockbuster May 18th (Kim Ji-hoon), while the less popular, more subtle Old Garden (Im Sang-soo, 2006) also dealt with the subject. Maybe it is a topic whose time has come.

Jang Sun-woo's Petal
Jang Sun-woo's Petal

It takes time for such traumatic events to be assimilated. There a Petal silently falls, which was written in 1988, deals with Kwangju fairly obliquely. Jang Sung-woo’s film (1996) follows the novel fairly closely in its treatment. In the book itself we do not see the soldiers. We do not feel the high passions or the minjung spirit of the people. The shifting currents of opinion among the representatives of the Kwangju citizens in negotiating with the military are unimportant to the narrative. All we see of the uprising, apart from the crucial flashback scene at the end, is one girl’s journey with her mother into the centre of the city on one particularly bloodthirsty day.

The crisis from which the work springs is the death of the central figure’s mother. The red holes in her mother’s body, caused by the illegal exploding bullets used by the paratroopers, are bad enough, but what traumatises the girl most is that she had to stamp on her mother’s arm to free herself and escape from the slaughter. The focus is on the girl, and her subsequent ghostlike existence, not the regionalised politics, the brutality of the regime or the brave resistance of the Kwangju citizens.

To the extent that there is a definitive story-line, it is told from three or even four perspectives: first, the girl herself; second, the labourer who had the longest (2-month) encounter with her in her post-traumatic state; third, friends of her elder brother who had heard of her mother’s death and were trying to find her; and finally the author herself. Each viewpoint is at a different distance from what actually happened, and each finds it difficult to grasp the reality of the girl’s experience.

  • Even for the girl herself, there is the “black curtain” which prevents her from fully addressing the horrors of the day and the time leading up to it. She is wandering around in a daze, disconnected from her own memory of the event and not even sure where she is headed other than the fact that she feels compelled to find her brother’s grave, wherever that might be.
  • The labourer’s relationship with her is stunted, physical and at times brutal. The labourer eventually becomes to realise that she has been traumatised in some way, but he is kept at a further distance from what happened because of her inability or unwillingness to speak.
  • Her brother’s friends are physically and temporally remote from her and the events: they are perpetually a few weeks behind where she has been, and her trail has always gone cold by the time they catch her scent.
  • Finally the all-powerful narrator, who is at even more of a distance, and has even more difficulty in focusing on the events, to the extent that the girl is presented as one of many such traumatised bodies leading a ghostlike existence in the aftermath of Kwangju.

As her brother’s friends say:

Her soul was out there, roaming about, stirring up the dark night like a will-o’-the-wisp.

She is unattainable, insubstantial, almost as if she never existed, living a half-life in the shadows.

Like much contemporary Korean fiction, the setting is gloomy. Many of the characters are broken, some in more obvious ways than others. The central character, the girl, even before her traumatic experience was looked down upon as a “stutterer” (p33), and afterwards never “once volunteered a word” (p61) during her 2-month stay with the labourer, Chang. Chang himself had a stutter, while one of the first men to show her kindness (and subsequently abuse her) following her trauma was a mute, as was Uncle Chang-son, a character from her past. Meanwhile there is “something chronically wrong with Kim,” another man who shows her kindness (p43)

In discussing a work of this nature it would be remiss not to raise the subject of Han, the repressed grievances and unresolved hurts of the Korean people. The brief thumbnail sketch of Kim Sang t’ae introduces the concept:

Presently Kim began talking to her, his painful history spilling out like water through a sluice gate, a history he had stuffed deep inside himself, away from others. (p45, emphasis added)

The girl too, of course, is repressing her experiences deep within herself, which can be thought of as creating the foul stench which is emitted when she exhales.

She was haunted by some monster, and she was keeping it all inside,

says the Okp’o woman (p22).

I got old all at once [agrees the girl]. And those two words I can’t call out are buried deep inside me. I’m alone, all alone. (p28)

The pain she has suffered and the wounds on her body (some of them self-inflicted) become somehow universalised, absorbed into nature:

Afterward he would find that those wounds were everywhere visible – in the infinite sky, in the reverside sandbanks, in a bowl of rice, and later in the girl’s healed flesh (p11).

Even after the girl has healed, the wounds remain. Healing seems to bring no release. And the shining of the sun, which one would have thought would be a health-giving purgative, banishing the shadows and ghosts, is shunned:

That sun … its rays were a scourge that suddenly made him feel naked. (p59)

And perhaps more depressing is the fact that Ch’oe Yun envisages the characters involved in her story not being in a unique situation.

We had found to our surprise [say her brother’s friends] that in this region there were several people just like the girl who, if not necessarily the same reason, were wandering around in the grip of some compulsion. (p94)

And we are advised to maintain our distance if we come across a girl like this:

Because even if you do all this, many other girls will notice a young man like you. Traumatized and deranged, they will follow you, crying “Brother!” (p4)

This encourages the reader to think about the story more generically, for example regarding the girl as an emblem of the democracy movement. The sexual violence meted out on her by the various men she encounters is conventionally equated to the political repression of the time (a military connection is explicitly drawn in one beating which is referred to as an “insane tattoo” – p11). Her inability to speak could be taken as a protest about the brutal repression of freedom of speech under the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship. The staggering robustness of her bodily constitution (p47) despite the physical ravages that she has endured could be regarded as a metaphor for the strength of the democracy movement, the indomitable minjung spirit, which can withstand anything that the dictatorship can throw at it.

However, one can over-analyse: how is one to take the girl’s self-mutilation (p10) and her attempt to obliterate her face by smashing it into the train’s window (p53)? To say that the democracy movement was self-destructive seems to be a step too far, notwithstanding the fact in Hwang Sok-yong’s Old Garden one of the central characters suggests that by persisting in their militancy and consequently going to jail, the students were wasting the best part of their lives.

It is said that even in its native country Korean contemporary literature has surprisingly few fans compared with, say, contemporary Japanese literature. In the March 2007 edition of Seoul Magazine, an interview with a young Korean reader had the following quote:

I think most Korean novels are too dark and heavy. They are immersed in the shackles of modern history, such as the fight for democracy … and concerns for the divided Korean Peninsula. … There are times that you want light-hearted and trivial stories to read, and Japanese novels are perfect for that.

Browse the shelves on a decent London bookstore and you will find plenty of Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami, but precious little contemporary Korean literature. There a Petal Silently Falls is certainly not a cheery work. If one of the objectives of the competition is to win new converts to Korean literature in translation, maybe next time the KLTI should try to identify a book which is slightly more upbeat.

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