Brief book review: Suni Samchon

Suni SamchonHyun Ki-young: Suni Samchon
Translated by Lee Jung-hi
Asia Publishers Bilingual Edition, 2012, 186pp
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Jeju Island, in Korean literature of the late 70s and 80s, is not the honeymoon destination of more recent years. It was a place of poverty, of bitter memories – a place to escape from rather than a destination to visit voluntarily. In Hyun Kil-un’s short story collection Dead Silence published in the mid 1980s, the typical first person narrator is a journalist from Seoul visiting his home town a little unwillingly again after a break of a number of years, possibly decades, to cover a story, in the process of which he ends up learning about the troubles of his and the island’s past.

In Hyun Ki-young’s Suni Samchon, published in 1978 (and thus predating Hyun Kil-un’s collection) the narrator is a Jeju native who has moved to Seoul and got himself a job with a decent company, married with a child. He hasn’t set foot on the island for 8 years, and he has lost most of his Jeju dialect, speaking instead with a Seoul accent. We are in the present day – that is, January 1978 – and the narrator is returning to his home town to attend a family memorial service.

Gradually, we understand that this is no ordinary memorial service:

I had always remembered [my birthplace] as the piles of ash to which it had been reduced after the mandatory evacuation by the military thirty years ago. p13

…reminisces the narrator as he approaches his home town. And we learn that this Memorial Day is shared by hundreds of others in the same village…

Suni Samchon narrates in microscopic detail a civilian massacre that took place on the 18th day of the 12th lunar month of 1948 in Jeju’s fictional West Village. It is unmistakably based on the massacre that took place in Bukchon – North Village – on 17 January 1949. In that incident, the police separated out the families of the military and known rightist sympathisers, and gunned down most of the rest. The village was torched.

All this was part of a scorched earth campaign to eliminate potential places of refuge for the guerillas. Many “neutral” young men from the village were taking refuge in the caves up in the hills or, like Aunt Suni’s husband, had fled to Japan, to avoid the brutalisation from left and right. Police used the hunt for guerrillas an excuse to sexually assault women from the villages. Suni herself had suffered such interrogation.

None of these atrocities were documented at the time. Instead, the only records of the events were in the memories of the survivors and the perpetrators.

(The elders of my hometown) gathered together every memorial day and shared their stories to re-inscribe the events of that day in their own memories so as to never forget… Stories that had been told and retold every memorial service – to the point of forming a callus on our young ears – mushroomed luxuriantly in my mind once again. p71-73

By constant retelling of these stories. The villagers tried to ensure that they would never be forgotten. 30 years later, the narrator’s family speculate whether it is possible to uncover the truth, to find out whether the massacre was ordered from above or was just the action of a rogue unit. But, as one of the characters says

it won’t be easy [to discover the truth] as long as those individuals [responsible] are still alive and well. Do you think they’ll let us bring this question up in public? p117.

Sure enough, even though Suni Samchon is presented as fiction, it is close enough to the truth that the author was arrested and tortured. The story, and the others published with it in the same collection, was banned.

Hyun tells the story through flashbacks as the family elders recall the events of that night. In part it is a straightforward narrative, but in part it is a mystery story: we want to understand Suni’s disturbed state of mind, more than adequately explained by the traumas of that night. Unifying the past and present are the ominous crows: the same creatures that feasted on the bodies of the dead in 1949 now peck away at the rice offerings presented at the memorial services.

The central character of this brief story managed to survive the massacre at least physically, but the mental scars stayed with her until she ended up taking her own life as the story starts. As we learn more details of the events of that night and the months that follow we come to understand some of the traumas of the island, and why Suni’s death even 30 years later can be thought of as a delayed fatality of the original massacre. Hyun’s narrative is deft and poignant, touched with telling detail such as the schoolyard where the villagers were assembled prior to the massacre being littered with “unclaimed Full Moon brand rubber shoes” belonging to the dead (p143). Well worth investigating as a way into the pain of the Jeju 4:3 incident.

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