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Book Review: Cho Chongnae — How in Heaven’s Name

Heavens_NameCho Chongnae: How in Heaven’s Name
Translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton
Merwin Asia, 2012, 141 pages.
Originally published as 오 하느님 (O God) and renamed 사람의 탈 (Human Mask)

How in Heaven’s Name is an appropriate title for the mind-boggling story of how a group of Korean country lads came to be fighting in the German army and captured by US troops on the Normandy beaches on D-Day.

Cho Chongnae, bestselling author of the short story Land of Exile and the 10-volume Taebaek Mountains, brings to life the characters in this extraordinary tale based on actual events. At the centre is a group of Koreans forced to serve in the Japanese Army during their expansion into China. Fighting in Mongolia against superior Mongolian and Soviet forces they are soon taken prisoner. Their Korean nationality gives them the choice of an uncertain future as prisoner of war or to serve in the Soviet army against Japan and their allies. These Koreans, treated as unreliable citizens by the Japanese colonists are joined up with their ethnic brothers, the Koryo Saram regarded as unreliable by Stalin who had been uprooted to Central Asia in a forced migration a couple of years previously.

Having been forced to speak Japanese by the colonial masters, the Koreans are now given Russian names and have to learn to write them in the Cyrillic alphabet. But it is not long before they are sent to the German front where they get captured, spend a year doing forced labour as prisoners of war before being signed up for the German army to make good their manpower shortfall as they prepare to defend against the impending allied invasion in Normadndy.

As the blurb on the back says, the story is a microcosm of the uprooting and dislocation that have characterised much of modern Koreanand East Asian history.

The pages turn quickly, and with the speed of the action there is not too much space for spending time with the characters. Instead, we relive their hardship – hunger, cold and hard labour – and marvel that any of them made it to the coast of France, a country they had heard of, but had no clue where it was.
The Koreans – or some of them – survive their ordeal, sustained by longing for family and home, and by folk sayings such as “The tiger can fetch you off a dozen times but you’ll always survive as long as you stay focused”.

Rather like Kim Young-ha’s Black Flower, How in Heaven’s Name explores a little known and almost unbelievable byway in the history of the Korean people. It’s not something that you could make up.

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