Saturday, April 07, 2007

Rarely do I get to play the Korean Language Expert...

(Image from Wikipedia)

But yesterday, I did.

I had finally gotten around to ordering from Amazon a book that I've been intending to read for over two years now, Jacques Sandulescu's true story of his escape from a Russian gulag.

The book is titled Donbas: A True Story of an Escape Across Russia, and you can read excerpts from it at Jacques Sandulescu's website.

An escape across Russia might not sound especially riveting to a younger generation, but to those of us who vividly recall the Cold War and grew up fearing Russia as a dangerous enemy, the story of an escape from that brutal, mysterious, communist place drew one's fascinated attention.

And I knew that I had to learn the entire story when I read an excerpt beginning with these words on how the young Jacques was grabbed off a Romanian street and shipped off to prison camp in Russia:
I was arrested in Brasov on my way to school. It was just beginning to get light, and the cold dark-gray streets were almost empty. At a corner near the schoolgrounds I saw several armed Russian soldiers and a Romanian civilian interpreter shoving somebody into a police truck. They saw me...
Jacques was only 16, but at 6 feet 2 inches (190 centimeters) and 180 pounds (82 kilograms), he wasn't small, so the Russians took him, too, probably not believing that he was just a kid.

As reviewer Jesse Kornbluth notes on the literary site Head Butler, Jacques may have been young, but "his youth vanishes fast when he watches guards execute some would-be escapees."

Kornbluth reveals that Jacques is tempted to opt for their fate, reflecting that a quick death might be better than painfully freezing or slowly starving, but he makes the decision to stay alive, and for over two years, he survives in the slave-labor gulag, working hard in the mines, until...
After two and a half years, his luck runs out. Jacques is trapped in a cave-in and rescued only by a friend's heroic efforts. He fears his legs will be amputated. It's winter, but so what -- he must escape. His legs are running with pus, he is a mass of sores, but he slips onto a train, hides in an open coal car and begins the slow, freezing ride to the West.
Somehow, he makes a successful escape and ends up in the United States, where he learns to box professionally, then becomes a martial arts expert as he grows to be close friends with a man whom he called "Kancho," later "Mas Oyama," which is short for Masutatsu Oyama, but who is better known here in Korea by his birth name, Choi Yeong-eui (최영의; 崔永宜), or by the name that he took for himself, Choi Bae-dal (최배달; 崔倍達). About their friendship, Jacques says this:
There are a couple of myths I have to dispel about my friendship with Kancho, later Sosai, Oyama, even if the truth disappoints you. We've all seen so many Hollywood and Hong Kong action movies, the expectation of constant explosions, fights and chases has spoiled us for the sometimes more subtle drama of real life. One of those myths is that Kancho and I must have fought each other to a bloody standstill before we could become friends. I find it much more amazing that we somehow recognized each other at first sight. It's macho nonsense that two strong men can't be friends until they've brawled like tomcats, found out who is stronger, and earned each other's respect. I had to earn Kancho's respect, no question, but I did it through training with him, my great respect for him, and simply who I was. When it came to kumite, we certainly tested each other, and felt each other's strength, but we had no need to find out who could beat whom in a real fight. (We both knew: he would win, but not easily.) I could tell he enjoyed our kumite, because with me, unlike most sparring partners, he could open up and not be afraid to do damage.
See, the really tough guys know that they don't need to act macho.

Mas Oyama is long dead, but Jacques is still around and being cared for in his old age by his wife, the writer Annie Gottlieb, who maintains her own, interesting and well-written blog, Ambivablog, which she updates regularly and in which Jacques frequently appears.

Which leads me to my brief moment of Korean 'expertise.' Annie had blogged on Jesse Kornbluth's recent review of Donbas, and Annie's report of his review motivated me to order the book, and I told Annie (who calls herself Amba online):
I finally ordered the book from Amazon.

I've been intending to order and read it ever since I read the first chapter online and also of his friendship with the Japanese martial arts expert who was actually a Korean and who is famous here in Korea.

I also realized that I'd seen Jacques in Moscow on the Hudson, a brief but memorable performance that still sticks sharply in my mind.


With respect,

Jeffery Hodges
Annie responded:
Thank you! It's good to hear that Mas Oyama is "famous here in Korea." Since he left for Japan at an early age that could have gone either way ... but he is worth taking pride in and he did always maintain his connection to Korea. In fact, the friend we came to Chapel Hill to be near spent a couple of years in the mid-'90s studying Mas Oyama's karate in Korea, from where he sent us a cat. He did some interesting (unpublished) writing about Korean culture, too ...
Then added:
I should probably send him over to read your blog.
I replied:
Sure, send everybody over to my blog. Some might like it ... though it's really an exercise in narcissism that probably shouldn't be encouraged.

By the way, I clicked the link on the mysterious, electric cat, and about this:
We climbed a mountain called Pukansan. Pu means north, kan refers to the Han river, and san means mountain. It's the "mountain north of the Han."
Close, but it's actually Bukhansan -- "Buk-" meaning "north," "-han-" meaning "Han River," and "-san" meaning "mountain." It does, as noted, mean "mountain north of the Han River."

I rarely get to pretend to expertise in Korean, so thank you for the opportunity to sound as if I know more than I do.
And that's how I passed myself off as "Korean Language Expert."



At 7:16 AM, Blogger amba said...

That's quite an awesome mountain. We never saw a picture of it till now! I showed it to Jacques and he wanted to know, "Did you show it to Dito?"

At 7:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The mountain does look awesome. I've seen it only from a distance -- from down in Seoul -- but I'd like to hike up the path sometime soon.

Ditto on Dito. See if that top cat recognizes the place.

And I'm glad that Jacques is feeling well enough to make humorous recommedations.

Jeffery Hodges

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