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Book Review: Hwang Sok-yong – The Old Garden

The Old Garden - cover imageHwang Sok-yong: The Old Garden / The Ancient Garden
Originally published in 2000
English translation by Jay Oh, Seven Stories Press 2009 / Picador 2010.

“More has been expected of Hwang Sok-yong than almost any other Korean writer of the past quarter century,” says Bruce Fulton1. Having read The Guest (2002), and having watched and enjoyed Im Sang-soo’s adaptation of this earlier novel, I was expecting much of this translation, despite BR Myers’s luke-warm review in the New York Times.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way first. Why did the publisher decide on a different title (The Ancient Garden) for the UK release, when the title of the US version and of Im Sang-soo’s film is The Old Garden, and when the words “ancient garden” don’t appear together in the text, whereas “old garden” does? And who was responsible for the inappropriate choice of cover artwork – a generic Getty image of a loving couple? More particularly, a Western man looking morosely at his shoes with an Asian woman draped languidly on his back? What, precisely, has that got to do with the plot?

The translation is highly accessible, though clearly executed by an American: a character is described as “immigrating” from Korea to the US, rather than “emigrating”. Given that the only viewpoints in the book are from Korea and Germany, the translator’s introduction of an American viewpoint is jarring.

Hwang Sok-yong. Photo credit: NY Times / Park Jae-Hong
Hwang Sok-yong. Photo credit: NY Times / Park Jae-Hong

The subtitle appended by the publisher is “A Love Story”. It goes with the soft-focus cover, and I immediately bridled. But, once you get into the book you find that it’s as good a subtitle as any, if a book really needs one. For the two main characters, Oh Hyun-woo and Han Yoon-hee, were lovers, and without their love there would be no story: for they only had a few months together before Hyun-woo was arrested and imprisoned for life for his activities in the movement opposing Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. Much of the narrative of the book is provided by extended notes obsessively written by Yoon-hee to Hyun-woo – notes which she could only have a vague hope that he would ever read. The notes describe her own activities as an artist, mother and participant in the post-Kwangju resistance movement.

There were times when I thought the book was getting unnecessarily long (and at over 500 pages it requires some investment of time); but each time I thought this, soon the point became clear. For example, I began to start questioning why so much of the narrative was based in Germany, but then of course the Berlin Wall comes down, providing not only obvious parallels with the Korean peninsula but also an opportunity for Yoon-hee to meet a North Korean, visiting West Berlin from a university in the East.

The novel can be read on several layers. Yes, it is in part a love story, though the relationship seems to start more because Hyun-woo reminds Yoon-hee of her father who had similar revolutionary tendencies. On this level, it is a pleasing, leisurely read. But it is also an insider’s account of the resistance movement. The experiences of Hyun-woo in prison are told remarkably vividly, possibly representing the most enthralling passages of the novel, because they stem from Hwang’s own experiences in jail. And the experiences of Hyun-woo at the time of the Kwangju massacre are remarkably similar to Hwang’s. According to the BBC

[Hwang] lived in Kwangju at the time of the uprising.

He was away at the time the siege began, and then went into hiding while authorities rounded up thousands of people they suspected of dissident activities.

“Six months later, I went back to my home in Kwangju,” Mr Hwang told the BBC News website, “and nobody was there. Everybody was in prison, or had died, or had run away.

“My young friends, many of them died.”

As one might expect from a novelist involved in the protest movement, we get a largely sympathetic view of the underground. But as time progresses, a certain distances seems to open up between Yoon-hee and the successors to Hyun-woo in the protest movement: the one of the key figures is from a rather wealthy background, and the students seem to spend all their time bickering about nebulous ideology rather than developing specific plans. Im Sang-soo’s film is even more explicit in its criticism of the pointlessness of the later years of the resistance movement. For her part, Yoon-hee can’t believe that well-educated students want to work in a factory:

“All I am doing right now is being a liaison between the school and other students who are already working at the industrial complexes. But I’m going to look for a real job as a laborer. I need to see the world through their eyes, that’s why I want to work. I think I should just work for a couple of years.”

“Unbelievable…” My words trailed off.

Nevertheless, Yoon-hee ends up helping the students, largely because she’s seemingly the only person able to type. And one of the main publications she types is a collection of eye-witness accounts of the Kwangju massacre – a collection which in the real world had Hwang Sok-yong’s name on the cover.

Thus the novel criss-crosses pleasingly between fiction and real life. And while the reader might, with Im Sang-soo, question the ongoing relevance of the protestors’ cause after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the passion and ideology is well presented, dressed up in the framework of a love story.


  1. In The Columbia Companion to Modern East Asian Literature, quoted in a brief essay on Hwang at the back of this translation []

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