Hwang Sok-yong: "The ghosts of North and South Korea"
Two days ago, I posted a blog entry on Hwang Sok-yong's "Author's Note" to The Guest, in which I quoted the opening words:
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.I then questioned this point, noting that smallpox was believed to have come from the south of China, not from The West, but I noted that China stands to the west of Korea, and I openly asked if Hwang were conflating "west" as direction and "West" as location:
Since both Christianity and Marxism arrived from "The West" (though the process of their 'entry' is actually more complicated than this), then Hwang would appear to be interpreting the direction seo (서) for "west" in the term seobyeong (서병) to mean the place seoyang (서양), "The West," as it would mean in the more precise seoyangbyeong (서양병).Well, yesterday, I may have found part of the answer in "The ghosts of North and South Korea," an article that Hwang published in Open Democracy on December 16, 2005:
Did Hwang thus misunderstand the Korean expression seobyeong (서병) to mean "Western disease" . . . or was he knowingly punning on seoyangbyeong (서양병), as though seobyeong were shorthand for that? Since Hwang is Korean, then a misunderstanding would seem unlikely, which leaves a pun as the more likely, but if so, why did the translators render seobyeong as "Western disease"? A pun would have better been conveyed by "western disease" instead, which retains the ambiguity between "western" as a direction and "Western" as a place.
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.This slightly longer online version of Hwang's note specifies "the 17th century" and thereby identifies the date for the naming of smallpox as being more than 300 years ago, in the 1600s, which fits better with what I've read elsewhere. Note also that "western" is not capitalized here, better according with direction than with place. As for Christianity, it only first came to Korea after 1784, when the Korean Lee Seung-hoon became a Catholic while in China and returned to Korea to propagate the faith, which Hwang doesn't deal with at all anyway. By "Christianity," he seems to mean "Protestantism," which came toward the end of the 19th century, and I have to wonder if he's using the term "Christianity" to mean "Protestantism," as is so often the case here in Korea. At any rate, Hwang is clearly aware that smallpox preceded Westerners and Western ideas to Korea, so he must be consciously punning on seobyeong (서병) as "western direction" with seoyangbyeong (서양병) as "Western place."
More on that tomorrow. For now, let's look again at the book version for Hwang's penultimate paragraph in his "Author's Note":
As it turns out, the atrocities were committed by none other than ourselves, and the inner sense of guilt and fear sparked by this incident helped form the roots of the frantic hatred that thrives to this day. Less than five years ago, when I completed The Guest, I received fierce attacks from both Southern and Northern statists. (page 9)Now, compare this to the online version:
As it turns out, the atrocities were committed by none other than ourselves, and the inner sense of guilt and fear sparked by this incident helped form the roots of frantic hatred that thrives to this day. Less than five years ago, when I completed The Guest, I received fierce attacks from both Southern and Northern nationalists. In the South I was targeted by conservative Christian groups particularly, and in the North people were against the book as it admits this massacre was an internal war.Even though the differences are not profound, the online version uses the term "nationalists" rather than "statists" to identify Hwang's critics -- though this raises another problem since practically every Korean is nationalistic by Western standards. Why not just say that Hwang's book was criticized by both the left and the right?
There's also that informative extra sentence about "conservative Christian groups," i.e., Protestants. Now that I've read the entire book, I can see why they didn't like it, for it depicts the Protestants in the North as having descended into utter barbarity in their struggle against the Communists. Granted, Hwang states that the Communists committed many of the same kind of brutal massacres, and he does serve as truth-teller to the North in honestly identifying Koreans rather than Americans as those really responsible for massacres that the North attributes to the Americans. However, he depicts in concrete detail those massacres carried out by Protestants and only reports more generally about similar massacres carried out by Communists, leaving the book unbalanced in its effect on the reader.
He seems to have held Protestants to a higher standard here, as I noted in a comment yesterday, for when the main character, a Protestant minister, remarks that the Communists slaughtered Christians, too, he receives this response:
"Well, as you people put it, they weren't believers, were they?"The one who delivers this retort is himself a Protestant Christian, albeit also a Communist Party member, and he's about the only fully admirable character in the novel (though the main character is also admirable), and the point seems to be that since the Protestants had always been so sure that they would act in a morally superior manner, their descent into barbaric depravity was therefore worse because more culpable.
Enough for now. I will post again on Hwang Sok-yong tomorrow, for I have some more to say on smallpox as a 'Western' disease.