Book review: Kim Sok-pom — The Curious Tale of Mandogi’s Ghost

The Curious Tale of Mandogi's GhostKim Sok-pom: The Curious Tale of Mandogi’s Ghost
Translated by Cindi Textor
Columbia University Press, 2010 (114pp)
Originally published in Japanese, 1970.
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What seems to be new entrant in the Korean literature in translation market is more complicated than it first seems. The author, Kim Sok-pom, is actually a second-generation zainichi Korean resident in Japan, and the novel is written in Japanese. Kim’s parents, originally born in Jeju-do, moved to Japan in the 1920s. First published in 1970, the novel was received with scepticism by the Japanese reading public.

The story is set in the aftermath of the so-called 4.3 incident – the 1948 conflict in Jeju-do between partisans protesting about separate elections for North and South Korea (and suspected of being communist sympathisers) and the authorities (including Syngman Rhee’s notorious North West Youth Association of ant-communist thugs).

So far, the whole thing sounds pretty depressing. The story centres on Mandogi, a rootless simpleton who was left at a Buddhist temple in Jeju-do by his zainichi mother when he was a toddler. He has no formal name, no family registry, and his only home is the temple where he is an odd job man and cook. Called “dogshit” by his mother (which the author explains as “actually a way of praying for his health and happiness”), he is named Mandogi by the senior priest.

In the informative introduction, the translator Cindi Textor suggests that the book can be read on many levels:

  • An historical novel set at the time of the 4.3 incident – the most straightforward reading as this is what the story is about.
  • A discourse on identity – bearing in mind that the author was a zainichi, an invisible and underprivileged minority in Japan, neither fully Korean nor fully Japanese, and caught between loyalty to South and North Korea, while Mandogi himself is nameless, invisible.
  • An examination of what it is to be human – bearing in mind that despite his shadowy namelessness, Mandogi displays more humanity than the other characters in the novel.

She also suggests additional readings – a Buddhist novel and a political novel attacking the Syngman Rhee regime.

For me, the zainichi reading is the least rewarding, relying as it does on a knowledge of the author’s own background. While Mandogi’s mother is a zainichi, she figures little in the novel – in fact her only role is to return Mandogi to Jeju Island where he can become “Korean” again. While examples can be found in the text to criticise the oppressiveness of the regime or the inhuman actions of the police or the Japanese imperial establishment, any zainichi agenda in the novel is buried beneath the surface of the text, if it is there at all.

I tread carefully when it comes to Buddhism, not knowing much about the religion’s tenets. Mandogi’s own status within the Buddhist order is somewhat ambiguous. As the narrator states, most temple hands end up becoming priests, but this step never occurred to Mandogi. Nevertheless, he ends up being the only person in the temple who observes the regular cycle of prayers, and finds himself called upon to perform funeral rites in the absence of anyone else. But the revenge taken by Mandogi at the end of the tale sits oddly with a religious view of the text; the fact that the revenge seems to be endorsed by the spirit of a senior Buddhist priest complicates the question further.

The most obvious secondary reading is that of a political novel which attacks the corruption and oppressive behaviour of the police and the regime itself, and possibly by extension the Park Chung-hee regime. The police are little better than extortionists, and comically ill-educated. Their authority means that they don’t need learning. “In our Republic of Korea, as long as you don’t agree with commie ideas, you’re allowed to rape, steal and murder!” are the words that Kim Sok-pom puts into the mouth of the police chief. Mandogi has a moment of realisation towards the end of the novel, where he concludes that if you are not part of the US-backed establishment your status is ghostlike:

Come to think if it, is there anyone in this country that’s not a ghost? Well, there’s President Syngman Rhee and the officials round him, and then there’s the American soldiers… but if … you aren’t in the American army, and you aren’t President Syngman Rhee, and you aren’t an official, then aren’t you kind of like a ghost

One of the more curious aspects of the book is Mandogi’s relationship with the self-centred ajumma who runs the temple. Her name is translated as “Mother Seoul”. She is called “Seoul” because that’s where she used to run a brothel, but the association with the seat of national political power is obvious. And although for many readers the title “Mother” will simply imply “old woman” (as in “Old Mother Hubbard”), in this text it actually translates the word bodhisattva: someone with a level of spiritual enlightenment for whom we ought to have respect (as we might for a Mother Superior in a convent). So while the heartless, erratic and corrupt behaviour of Mother Seoul leads the reader to feel contempt for her, the name implies a person that we should be respecting. Is there a parallel to be drawn with the Rhee or Park regime?

Mandogi feels love for her, as if she is his own mother (indeed, sometimes he calls her eomeoni), and this love and instinctive loyalty survives the regular brutal beatings she gives him for absolutely no reason. It is not too much of a leap to equate the dim-witted Mandogi with the humble working classes and peasants in the countryside – a class who would later be known as the minjung – being oppressed by the government in Seoul, who should be acting more like an eomeoni. Where, in this interpretation, the suppressed sexual relationship between Mandogi and Mother Seoul finds a place I’m not sure.

Another curious aspect of the novel is the way in which the novelist interposes himself between the reader and the narrative. While most of the time we see the story unfold before our eyes, sometimes Kim Sok-pom addresses us directly, as when an actor in a play turns to talk to the audience, or, more relevantly, when listening to an adult reading a children’s story, the story-teller sometimes steps aside from the narrative to converse with the audience. (“Here, it must be said that our Mandogi was quite foolish”). The use of this narrative device has the effect of making the story seem like a timeless fairy tale, defusing somewhat the horror of the events contained therein.

It is not giving too much away to say that Mandogi dies halfway through the narrative, but even in this respect there is ambiguity. Mandogi faces a firing squad, and the police remember burying him. But from Mandogi’s perspective he just suffered a minor scratch to the ear because he ducked at the last minute. While a modern adult audience won’t believe in ghosts, given that the narrative is more like a children’s fairy tale – because Mandogi himself has a simple outlook on life – we suspend our disbelief about the plausibility of a ghost roaming the countryside. But In one of the more bizarre statements in the story, we have the police not thinking it at all strange: “No, in fact it was the position of the police that ghosts weren’t even strange any more.”

So, within a brief and entertaining novel, which on the surface in content and narrative style resembles more than anything else a simple folk tale albeit in a turbulent modern setting, there’s plenty of material to keep the grey cells exercised. Although there’s no clear resolution to the different angles from which the text can be approached, this is part of the book’s appeal. The title is well chosen: it is indeed a curious but nevertheless rewarding tale.

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