Hwang Sok-yong: The ghosts of North and South Korea

In the 17th century, when smallpox was first identified as a western disease that needed to be warded off, the Korean people referred to it as mama or sonnim, the second of which translates to “guest.” With this in mind, I settled upon The Guest as a fitting title for a novel that explores the arrival and effects of Christianity and Marxism in a country where both were initially as foreign as smallpox.
As smallpox reached epidemic proportions and began sweeping across Korea, shamanic rituals called “guest exorcisms” were often performed to fight against the foreign intruder. The Guest is essentially a shamanistic exorcism designed to relieve the agony of those who survived and appease the spirits of those who were sacrificed on the altar of cultural imperialism more than 50 years ago.
This twelve-chapter novel is modelled after the “Chinogwi exorcism” of Hwanghae province. The ritual consists of twelve separate rounds. As is the case during an actual exorcism, the dead and the living simultaneously cross and re-cross the boundaries between past and present, appearing at what seem like random intervals to share each of their stories and memories. My intention was to create an oral discourse in which a type of time travel provides the latitudinal coordinates of the story, with the longitude provided by the individual character’s first-person narratives, revealing a wide range of experiences and perspectives. In a way, the novel itself is one complete shamanistic ritual.
If it is true that trying to rid yourself of residual memories inevitably results in a clearer and more solid memory, then the spirits of the past must be impossible to escape, regardless of whether they are alive or dead. At times, these apparitions can be more than mere phantoms: they are sent to us by the tragic wars of the past as a form of karma we must deal with – they are facets of the burden of history, a vivid reality.
In Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the reader is exposed to the ghost of a forefather who inexplicably returns to life. In that text also the ghost is more than a mere magical phantasm. A reality rife with exploitation and repression had weighed upon the people of Latin America for countless years. A product of the pressing actuality that freedom is an impossible dream, the phantom is one that history itself must face down, fight, drive out, use, and conquer. Countless souls have been lost to the blind inevitability of history itself; dismantling this structure to a state in which time belongs to the people is a foal of this novel.
I have gone through four different phases as a writer. First, in the 1970s, after the Vietnam war, my world view and opinion of society changed, and this impacted a lot on my progression as a writer.
In the 1980s I was forced to leave Korea and went into exile. I was in Germany and witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall – that is when I discovered histories and individual histories – not just one meta-narrative.
When I was in prison in the 1990s I discovered daily life and routine, and after that, the world. Nowadays I will say that I am a citizen of the world. What that means is, when it comes to the problem of the Korean peninsula, I will share that with the people of the world.
If I had not had the experience of exile I probably would not have gone through these different stages and reached this point. To be a writer is not to be confined to a particular nationality or culture. It is best to sit on the fence and observe – it gives a lot more creative energy. It is important to become detached from one’s national identity and to look at one’s self objectively.
I criticise any fundamentalist tendencies brought about by both religion and politics, but there is a risk of this (as we can still see in the world now) being too “black and white.” This for me, as a novelist, is a very important issue to deal with.
I began working on The Guest in 2000, the fiftieth anniversary of the Korean war. The September 11 attacks a year later came directly after The Guest was first published, and the onset of this new “age of terror,” along with the inclusion of North Korea in the “axis of evil,” and the beginning of a whole new war, made the fragility of our position clearer than ever. It was a chilling experience to be so reminded that despite the collapse of the Cold War infrastructure, our small peninsula is still bound by the delicate chains of war.
Because of Korea’s identity as both a colony and a divided nation, both Christianity and Marxism were unable to achieve natural, spontaneous modernisation; instead, they were forced to reach modernity in accordance with conscious human will. In North Korea, where the legacy of class structure during the traditional period was relatively diluted compared to the South, the tenets of Christianity and Marxism were zealously adopted as facets of “enlightenment.”
During the Korean war, the area of North Korea known as Hwanghae province was the setting of a fifty-day nightmare during which Christians and Communists – two groups of Korean people whose lives were shaped by two different “guests” – committed a series of unspeakable atrocities against each other.
Today, in a district known as Sinch’ŏn in Hwanghae province, there stands a museum that indicts the American military for the massacre of innocents. The literal translation of the museum’s name is “The American Imperialist Massacre Remembrance Museum.” Many years ago, when I visited the North, I was given a tour of this museum as a matter of course.
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