When the issue of comfort women has been with us since the Pacific War, to re-emerge in 1991 when Kim Haksun came forward as the first to announce herself as victim, it is astonishing that we had to wait until 2016 for what is, according to Bonnie Oh’s introduction (p ix), “the first Korean novel devoted exclusively to the subject”. It is also a little surprising that it took so long to find a publisher for its English translation. Sure, the title doesn’t have the mass appeal of a Please Look After Mother or the latest K-noir, but it deserves a readership.
It is unfortunate that during the time it took to translate and find a publisher, Mary Lynn Bracht’s fine White Chrysanthemum (2018) hit the bookshops. That title also is mostly set in a Manchurian comfort station. To my knowledge, Bracht is the first author without Korean heritage to address the subject; before her came English language titles by Chang-Rae Lee (A Gesture Life, 1999) and Nora Okja Keller (Comfort Woman, 1998) and probably others too.
While the topic may not be completely new, Kim Soom’s One Left scores over other titles because of its authenticity. Not because it is written in Korean, but because it so obviously draws on the actual testimony of comfort women: individual incidents or piece of dialogue are footnoted and cross referred to documented testimonies of one of many brave victims who have come forward.
The central character in the story is a victim in her 90s who has been living with her secret ever since she fled the Manchurian comfort station at the end of the war. Because she has not come forward and registered as a victim she has no access to the government allowance available to victims. In fact because she was snatched into sexual servitude at such a young age she has no education, struggles to read and write, and is not on any citizens register. She squats in a ramshackle neighbourhood in a house owned by her nephew – a placed purchased so he has preferential rights to a new apartment when the area is demolished. It’s a place where many of the houses are empty, and anyone that remains seems to live on the edge of society.
It is not until near the end of the novel that we discover the woman’s name: P’unggil. The life of slavery in the comfort station was utterly dehumanising: the victims were given Japanese names by their captors; their bodies were not their own. Their lives, identities and names had been erased and taken from them. Many victims did not survive and those that did nursed physical and mental wounds for the rest of their lives.
With so many comfort women forced into service, the experience of one victim can stand for all, and in writing this novel Kim Soom has done painstaking research. At the comfort station, punishments inflicted on one girl could equally be suffered by another.
One of the girls had run off on the way back from the regular gynecological checkup … She was caught not by otosan [the husband of the haha referred to below – the Japanese couple in charge of the comfort station] but by the MPs. Otosan hauled her out of the truck and dumped her in the yard. Her sack dress was ripped and torn, and she’d been beaten bloody.
“Chop off her feet so she won’t do it again,” haha ordered him.
He pulled out his dagger and for all intents looked ready to show the girls exactly what to expect should anyone else run off … With his dagger otosan left the would-be runaway with a gash across the ankle. (p87)
It is not until later in the page that we discover that the would-be runaway was P’unggil herself. We flash forward to the present day:
As she pulls the right sock up, she stops to feel her ankle bone.
Above the bone is a line you might think was left by an elastic band, but actually it’s a scar left by something sharp, a knife perhaps.
She passes her hand across the scar, then opens her mouth and a shriek bursts out. That was me who had her ankle sliced open at the comfort station!
Her flashbacks and reminiscences have been prompted by a news item on the television in which it is announced that the “last” surviving comfort woman is on her deathbed in hospital. The imminent passing of the last living victim able to attest to the war crime is a matter of significance: the woman who is in hospital doesn’t want to pass away knowing there is no-one left to continue witnessing to the events, and P’unggil feels moral pressure to step forward and tell the lady that she will carry on the campaign.
One thing the novel tells us is that the victimhood of women in war is universal, and not confined to the Japanese sphere of influence in the 1940s. P’unggil watches another news item on the television, about the sufferings of women in a civil war in Africa.
With a fear-ridden expression the younger sister standing at the door falters, “I don’t know why they did that to me.”
Those are precisely the words [P’unggil] would like to say but doesn’t know how to. Astonished, she marvels that an African girl with a different skin tone could say this. (p133)
In fact, while one can admire the amount of research that went into the account of P’unggil’s experiences in the Manchurian comfort station, the novel is more interesting for its account of her life back in Korea after her escape at the end of the war and even more so for its depiction of her current traumatised psychological state. Personally I would have preferred more emphasis on these two latter aspects. For example, at a crucial point in the novel when P’unggil is deciding to declare herself as a victim, we get this insight:
Whenever she thinks about herself, shame fires up first. It’s humiliating and painful to remember who she is.
In the process of trying not to examine and reveal herself she has forgotten who she is. (p109)
For all the horror of the account of events in Manchuria, for me one of the most powerful sentences in the novel is one that presents simply P’unggil’s humble and unassuming ambition for the rest of her life – again an ambition shared by one of the victims whose testimonies the author has studied:
Her wish is to live and die quietly without troubling anyone and without being treated with disrespect (p145)
But with her neighbourhood scheduled for demolition, and having made the decision to visit the “last” comfort woman in hospital, one suspects that is not an option left open to P’unggil.
All credit then, to author, translators and publisher for bringing this important book to us.
Kim Soom: One Left
Translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton
University of Washington Press, 2020
Originally published as 한 명 by Hyundae Munhak, 2016.