[KS] KSR 2007-04:_The Voice of the Governor General and Other Stories of Modern Korea_, by Hwang Suk-Young et al., translated by Chun Kyung-Ja

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Sat Feb 3 21:16:04 EST 2007

The Voice of the Governor General and Other Stories of Modern Korea, by Hwang Suk-Young et al., translated by Chun Kyung-Ja. Norwalk: EastBridge, 2002. 190 pp. (ISBN 1-891936-06-9 paper, $24.95).

Reviewed by Theodore Hughes
Columbia University
th2150 at columbia.edu <mailto:th2150 at columbia.edu> 

The Voice of the Governor General and Other Stories of Modern Korea brings together seven literary texts written in the 1960s and 1970s by four important South Korean writers-Hwang Suk-Young, Yoon Heung-Gil, Cho Se-Hui, and Choi In-Hoon (I follow Chun Kyung-ja’s romanization of personal names)-closely associated with the post-1945 history of national division, authoritarianism, and rapid industrialization. With the exception of the installment of Cho’s linked novel A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball, to my knowledge none of the stories included in this volume appears elsewhere in translation.[1] Other than Cho’s popular and critically acclaimed text (nearly thirty years after its publication, it remains on the Kyobomungo “steady-seller” list), the stories anthologized in this volume have been somewhat overshadowed by the more famous, canonical works by these writers (for example, Hwang’s Changgilsan and “The Road to Sampo,” Yoon’s “The Man Who Remained as Nine Pairs of Shoes” and “The Rainy Spell,” Choi’s The Square). If the stories collected here are considered “minor,” however, this is also their strength-in many ways they are more experimental and provocative than their more well-known counterparts. 

While Choi In-Hoon’s literary output was largely restricted to the 1960s and 1970s and Yoon Heung-Gil and Cho Se-hui are known as “1970s writers,” Hwang Suk-Young (1943- ) has published major works in each of the past five decades. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Hwang is frequently associated with the progressive “national literature movement” (minjok munhak undong) which emerged in South Korea in the mid-1970s and in many ways dominated the literary scene through the early 1990s. The three stories included here-“Neighbors” (1972), “The Uninvited Minstrel” (1975), “Pagoda” (1971)-represent some of Hwang’s earlier work. “Neighbors” tells the story of a Vietnam veteran who, like many in the 1960s and 1970s, leaves the countryside for Seoul, where, unable to find steady employment, he becomes one of Seoul’s homeless, eventually reduced to “gurgling” (selling his blood to hospitals and, in one case, to a bedridden wealthy businessman). The first-person narrator eventually lands in jail after killing a man on the streets of Seoul in a fit of rage. “Neighbors,” like many of Hwang’s works, explores the increasing awareness of “social reality” by an emerging urban working class in relation to a politics of the body. Here, the appropriation of the protagonist’s militarized body by the state (U.S./ROK) for combat in Vietnam is matched by class warfare at home, as the text portrays the urban elite revitalizing themselves by feeding upon the narrator’s blood (thus making visible in the domestic space the profit gained from the deployment of the narrator to fight “another’s war”). 

Taking place in an unspecified location in the distant past, “The Uninvited Minstrel” offers a fable-like account of the formation of an alternative space and community. Suchu, a zither-playing minstrel with a captivating voice appears in a riverside marketplace and eventually wins over the hearts of the townspeople, thus threatening the local lord’s claim to power over his subjects. Imprisonment, followed by the cutting out of Suchu’s tongue, and then his beheading all fail to silence the minstrel, as his songs have spread to the people, who now sing them of their own accord. If the “The Uninvited Minstrel” offers an allegory of authoritarianism, censorship, and popular resistance, it also demonstrates one of the central concerns of the minjung (people’s) movement, the problematic relationship between dissident intellectual and the working class. Here, potential disjunction is negotiated via removal of the minstrel from the scene and the making of his voice into that of the townspeople. 

In “Pagoda,” the first South Korean literary work set in Vietnam, a platoon of Korean soldiers is dispatched to R-Point (the 2004 South Korean film R-Point does owe an unacknowledged debt to Hwang’s text) to secure a pagoda considered important to winning the affiliation of the inhabitants of a local village. After heavy casualties and an extended firefight, U.S. troops arrive on the scene and proceed to raze the pagoda, paying no attention to the protests of the Korean soldiers. “Pagoda” contests the semi-peripheral position of South Korea in the Cold War World, the location of South Korea between the U.S. and its “undeveloped” Others, by advocating a realignment based on a culturalist pan-Asianism (here in the form of Buddhism). 

Yoon Heung-Gil (1942- ) belongs to the generation of writers who experienced the Korean War as children; coming of age in the 1970s, these writers explored new approaches to the issue of national division, frequently deploying a child’s point of view to sift through the ideological split that tore families apart, as we see in Yoon’s famous “The Rainy Spell” (1973). “Mu-Jeh” (1978), the story that appears in this volume, centers on the narrator’s relation to an indigent uncle he has worked to avoid (a spy from the North who surrendered to South Korean authorities shortly after the Korean War) and a typesetter he hardly knows, Bong Mu-Jeh (also from the North). Bong is a master typesetter with a fatal flaw-he replaces a key word in each galley with the term “Mu-Jeh” (defined in the text as “false landfall…a mirage that appears on the ocean”). Bong’s disruption of texts points to his dislocation in the South, as well as to his resistance to the presentation of would-be objective material (much of his editing work involves textbooks). Bong’s interruption coincides with the aim of Yoon’s text, which attempts to unsettle the ways in which increasing middle-class prosperity and the concerns of the everyday in the 1970s are marked by a forgetting of the continuing division of the peninsula. 

Cho Se-hui (1942- ) followed his early debut on the literary scene with a ten-year silence broken by what has become one of most revered texts of post-1945 South Korea (and required reading in the 1980s for members of the student movement), A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball (1975-1978)-a linked novel (y?njak sos?l) or series of short stories published separately in literary journals, each of which supplements the others while standing on its own as a self-contained text. “A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball,” the short story in this volume, bears the title of the 1978 novel that brought together the twelve separate installments. The linked novel form works particularly well with Cho’s interest in offering a multi-voiced portrayal of the “different worlds” (rich and poor) that make up mid-1970s Seoul. Shifts in narration can also occur within individual installments, as we see in “A Dwarf,” which has three different narrators, the children of a family in the process of being forcibly evicted from a home located in a designated “redevelopment district.” Cho also works to weave personal memory (the text is marked by frequent, unannounced shifts from present to past) with a larger history of marginalization and oppression continued into the present. We see this, for example, in the “serf records” from the Chos?n dynasty linked to the “dwarf’s” family; it is in this way that Cho’s text intersects with the emergence of minjung discourse and its emphasis on a “people’s history.” 

With the publication of The Square (1960), a text noted for its questioning of the Cold War order via simultaneous critique of North and South, Choi In-Hoon (1936- ) earned his reputation as a writer of “novels of ideas” (kwanny?m sos?l). While a concern with national division marks much of his work, Choi (who was born in W?nsan and came South during the Korean War) increasingly turned his attention in the mid-1960s to an exploration of colonial modernity, particularly to the ways in which the legacy of Japanese colonialism continued to inform the contemporary South Korean scene. The text included in this volume, Choi’s 1961 short story “Imprisoned,” was published two months after Park Chung Hee’s military coup-the space allotted to the first-person narrator thus contrasts with the liberal democratic freedom of the public sphere invoked in The Square. The narrator finds himself imprisoned in a cell in a psychiatric ward, a space presented to us by way of the text’s title, the Sino-Korean character “Su,” the person character placed inside a square box. Under the Park regime, Choi’s text warns, those who pursue democracy will be labeled as subversive, even as deviant (thus the daily interrogations of the narrator by a state psychiatrist). It is no accident that the placing of this first-person narrator under medication, as well as his childlike play within his room bears a relation to the plight of the “I” in Yi Sang’s well-known colonial-period short story “Wings.” For Choi, the end of the 1960 thaw represented, more than anything else, a return to colonial modernity. 

In his linked novel The Voice of the Governor General, a text that appeared in four installments (one in 1967, two in 1968, and one much later in 1976; Chun Kyung-Ja has translated the 1967 installment for this anthology), Choi explores the ways in which the official ethno-nationalism of the Park regime reproduces the imperialist ideology of the Japanese colonial period. “The Voice of the Governor General” occurs in the form of a transcript of the Japanese Governor General, who informs his audience that the polite farewell offered to the Japanese exiting Korea following the August 1945 surrender led him to remain underground on the peninsula, waiting for the time when he could return to power. This return, Choi implies, has occurred less from the outside, in the form of the return of Japanese capital following the 1965 normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and Korea, than from within-it is the return of colonialist ideology, of the colonial repressed in the form of the Park regime’s mid-1960s statist consolidation of power. In the text, that is, the underground broadcast of the Governor General, who declares that “art is short, race eternal” could very well be the logic, and the form, of the voice of Park outlining his plans for ethno-national renewal on state-controlled radio. 

In addition to the seven literary texts, The Voice of the Governor General and Other Stories of Modern Korea includes a finely crafted critical introduction to the writers and their works by Kim Uchang, as well as an extremely insightful afterword by James West introducing Choi In-Hoon and offering a provocative reading of his The Voice of the Governor General. In his introduction, Kim Uchang writes that “Chun Kyung-Ja, the expert translator of Peace Under Heaven . . . has done an invaluable service in making these stories available to English-speaking readers.” I am very much in agreement with Professor Kim, both in his assessment of the selection and the quality of the translations. Chun Kyung-Ja has provided us with a set of sensitive, nuanced translations that capture the spirit of a wide range of voices and styles without losing sight of the original. 


[1]A most welcome translation of Cho’s entire novel has recently appeared under the title of The Dwarf, translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton. Manoa: University of Hawaii Press, 2006.


Hughes, Theodore 2007
Review of _The Voice of the Governor General and Other Stories of Modern Korea_,by Hwang Suk-Young et al., translated by Chun Kyung-Ja (2002)
Korean Studies Review 2007, no. 4
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr07-04.htm <http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr07-04.htm> 

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