The Naked Tree, by Pak Wan-sô (trans. Yu Young-nan). Cornell East Asia Series, 83. Ithaca, N.Y.: East Asia Program, Cornell University, 1995. (ISBN 1-885445-73-3 cloth; ISBN 1-885445-83-0 paper).
The last few years have witnessed increasing overseas interest in the writing of Pak Wan-sô, arguably South Korea's most popular female author. The Naked Tree (Namok), the first of Pak's full-length works to be translated into English, appears under the auspices of the Cornell East Asia Series, which has also recently brought forth such important contemporary Korean novels as Hwang Sôk-yông's The Shadow of Arms and Cho Chông-nae's Playing With Fire.
Set during the Korean War, The Naked Tree is narrated in first person by Kyung-a, a young woman working in a studio that produces hack portrait paintings for American soldiers. The plot largely concerns itself with her less than fulfilling relationships with men, most notably a married painter who has fled to Seoul from the north, and her melancholy existence at home with her mother. An even deeper sense of tragedy underlies the protagonist's life, but Pak is careful to leave the precise causes for this aura of gloom oblique; the climactic flashback is postponed until late in the novel, thus effectively building a suspense that propels the narrative forward. The story itself is an engaging one, but several aspects of the text render it of particular interest to readers in the west and make it potentially valuable for courses on modern Korean literature, history or society, as depictions of contact between South Korea and the United States and a vivid portrait of Seoul in the early 1950's are set within a compelling frame about coming of age during a traumatic period.
The novel opens with an encounter between the narrator and an American GI that establishes an undertone of cultural conflict, the very first sentence drawing attention to the "Otherness" of these recent en masse arrivals on the Korean peninsula: "a hand covered with thick brown tufts of hair thrust something in my face" (1). Attitudes towards America are deeply ambivalent, to say the least, as the United States is viewed simultaneously as a glamorous land of riches, and one whose inhabitants generally deserve little respect. One character launches into a tirade that grows progressively more obscene as it contrasts the purity of Korean blood with that of American "mongrels" (20). Nonetheless Pak succeeds in eliciting the complexity in South Korea's relationship with its ally: disdain mixes easily with envy, admiration, and compassion for those who have to give up "happiness and family in order to face death on brutal foreign battlefields" (94).
The picture of wartime Seoul will likely engage and may even surprise. Although the narrative invokes a contrast between the capital and southern cities like Pusan and Taegu, "where the houses still were brightly lit and the streets were thronged with crowds of people" (4), Seoul's dynamism protrudes almost in spite of itself. Under Pak's pen, the city comes alive and we observe life going on in the face of the era's difficulties. Tea rooms, taverns and even a Japanese restaurant form the backdrop for the novel's conversations, while outside we encounter itinerant toy vendors, Clark Gable smirking on movie posters and crowded Myông-dong alleyways, whose excitement, the narrator remarks, makes wartime seem far away. Nevertheless, consciousness of the war remains omnipresent. The tensions are especially well conveyed when New Year's Day, 1952, finds Kyung-a sitting down in her home to a scarcely celebratory meal of kimchi soup and rice; on the gray walls hangs an American calendar that depicts a healthy-looking couple fresh from a ski slope quenching their thirst with a bottle of cola.
To concentrate on these (admittedly intriguing) aspects of the text, however, would be to detract from its primary focus, which is very much the story of a historically particularized young woman's coming of age. Kyung-a, who presents a tough exterior that conceals an inner fragility, is a realistically drawn and complex character. Equally cynical and idealistic, she usually commands the reader's sympathy. And yet she can also display a striking lack of compassion towards Diana Kim, a single mother who sleeps with GIs in order to make ends meet: "What an evil woman. Does she think she can do all those terrible things in the name of motherhood? Thick-skinned bitch!" In response to a friend's attempt to instill a modicum of understanding within her, she remarks "I couldn't control my anger at all the good, naive people who were swayed by the word 'mother' " (92). The reasons for this venom, which at times makes Kyung-a unlikeable, only become clearer late in the novel as we discover more about her life with her own mother. Tensions between women of the older and younger generation form a recurrent theme in Pak's work; in The Naked Tree the narrator's combative relationship with her mother at times erupts into virulent expressions of hatred.
The protagonist, finding herself drawn by the "mysterious power of the opposite sex" (95) and searching for romantic love, navigates a course somewhere between the Diana Kims of Korea and the fortunate few whose lives are further removed from the effects of the war. Her quest is beset by disappointment, however: an unsatisfying date leads her to muse that "all I experienced from my first kiss was that it was cold" (43), and she later portrays sexuality to herself as animalistic. Eventually she forms a brief, disastrous relationship with an American soldier, the denouement of which triggers the crucially missing flashback in the novel's most powerful scene.
Yu Young-nan's translation is very readable and largely unobtrusive, one of the finer compliments a translation of a Korean novel can have. Only occasionally during dialogue does awkward phrasing prove jarring (a noteworthy example occurs on p. 62 in the discussion of regional variations in dumplings, a passage that would strain the capabilities of even the most gifted translator). All in all, however, the appearance of The Naked Tree forms a most welcome addition to the growing body of both Korean novels generally and the work of Pak Wan-sô specifically that is available in English.