Review: Hwang Sok-yong – The Prisoner

How to review the autobiography of one of Korean’s leading novelists, who has won accclaim both sides of the border; who has spent five years in prison as well as being a person of interest to the authorities for much of his professional career?

The PrisonerThe memoir makes for fascinating reading as literary history: most of his best-known pre-Guest writings are name-checked and the circumstances and inspiration for their composition described. But many will read the book as social and political history, documenting as it does Hwang’s involvement in the resistance movements protesting about the inequitable treatment of workers under the developmental dictatorship of Park Chung-hee.

An editor’s note right at the beginning of this volume warns us that the original two-volume Korean work has been “abridged in collaboration between the author, the translators and the editor”. After this abridgement the book weighs in at over 600 pages, but still doesn’t feel overlong. It would be interesting to know which bits of the narrative have suffered most from the editor’s scissors. For me, the passage that covers beginning of the author’s researches for his Jang Gil-san serialisation felt rushed, and similarly his subsequent sojourn down in Haenam writing the work while organising the protest movement among the South Jeolla farmers and churches passed by rather quickly. But in general the pacing feels comfortable.

The narrative alternates between descriptions of his trial and five year prison sentence from 1993 to 1999 (which take 6 chapters) and more conventional autobiography. We start, however, with Hwang’s more recent life from 1985 onwards: his first trips abroad following the publication of the Gwangju Diary, and the visit to North Korea that earned him the prison sentence. Then, in chapter 7, we return to the beginning with a chronological narrative dealing with his childhood and adolescence. This structure works well in terms of giving a variety of material to absorb as we consume the text.

An unfair comparison, perhaps, but Kim Dae-jung’s recently translated autobiography starts, logically, but in a very pedestrian manner, with “I was born in Hugwang-ri, Haui-myeon, Muan-gun (now known as Sinan-gun), Jeollanam-do on January 6, 1924.” It makes the remaining 870 pages feel like a daunting hill to climb. Hwang’s autobiography starts with a prologue: a bowl of takeaway seolleontang and a genial discussion with his interrogators speculating how long his prison sentence is likely to be. Although many readers will already know what led to this conversation, the opening makes us want to turn the pages to hear the story from Hwang’s own mouth.

The narrative is full of lively detail: for example the lively drinking bouts which celebrated and largely consumed his publisher’s advances; when not consumed by all-night benders the funds would be used to support his labour movement activities. Occasionally his long-suffering wife would receive a small share, but this was far from the norm. To his credit, Hwang looks back with regret on how he neglected his family and his mother. This acknowledgement of his human failings makes us warm to him as a person, even as we admire his political convictions and his status in the literary world both domestically and internationally.

We learn about the mechanics for transmitting the instalments of Jang Gil-San from rural Haenam to the Korea Times offices in Seoul, in the days before fax machines or email:

He would grab anyone going to Gwangju and ask them to drop off the manuscript at the Gwangju branch of the Korea Times. Once dropped off, the manuscript was transmitted by telex to Seoul where an editor would decode the English into Korean letters before setting it into my column space. (p541)

Sometimes the text had to be dictated down the phone line from the village post office, causing some embarrassment to the ladies involved, given the robust nature of some of the dialogue.

Although Hwang Sok-yong’s name is of course associated with the Gwangju Uprising, during those few days he was actually in Seoul. Nevertheless through the pages of this memoir we get some vivid accounts of the events, and some useful insider material that counters the government’s propaganda about the involvement of activists from the North. We also learn how March for the Beloved came to be the anthem of the Gwangju movement.

If there is one criticism of this edition it’s that it could do with an index to improve its usefulness as a reference work, and a dramatis personae giving a few lines of biographical data on some of the key characters referenced. But this is a minor quibble. This is a highly readable account of one of Korea’s most acclaimed novelists, covering his life in wartime years, the itinerant phase that followed his time at school, his development as a writer, his service in the Vietnam War, his involvement in the protest movement, his time in prison and his emergence as an international literary figure. Verso and translators Sora Kim-Russell and Anton Hur are to be thanked for bringing it to an English-reading public, and we look forward to the Gwangju Diary from the same publisher next year. Overall the book satisfies a key test: would I read it again? Absolutely.

Hwang Sok-yong: The Prisoner score-2score-2score-2score-2score-1
Verso, 2021, 610pp
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell and Anton Hur

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