Friday, July 27, 2012

Shin Young-Bok's Memories . . .

Memories of Chung-Gu Hoe
Shin Young-Bok

From time to time, my wife obtains a Korean book that I can read because it's also in English, and a recent case is a brief memoir by Shin Young-Bok (신영복), Memories of Chung-Gu Hoe, translated by Cho Byung-Eun in 2008 and relating the story of a young professor's friendship with a group of penurious boys encountered on a hike with some university students to Seo-O-Reung Tomb in 1966:
They were aged about 10 or so, and were dressed in clothing that blended into the rustic landscape and the country road that had two deep lines from traces of cart-wheel tracks.

One of the boys had a middle school cap without a school badge, and another wore a white sports cap, I remember. The white sports cap was ragged by many washings, the paper in the visor was clustered in a few places and the shape of the visor was far from being the original round shape, drooping over the boy's forehead. Furthermore, stained with mud, it was hardly even white.

What caught my eyes most was the boy's woolen sweater. The sweater seemed to be knit with recycled thread from old sweaters. The colors were in disarray, with different colors for the body and the arms, and the arms of the sweater were again divided into two parts with different thread from the elbow down. The kid in that sweater wore somewhat [sic., something that] looked like a cap on the head, though.

I remember I felt sorry for these shabbily dressed kids, which reminded me of the desolation of the 'spring poverty,' the hardest period for farmers in early spring after all the food from the previous year's harvest had dried up. They looked back at us as if they did not have stories to be deeply engaged in. (Shin Young-Bok, Memories of Chung-Gu Hoe, pages 8-10; cf. this site for a related translation, though both translations could use some editing.)
Shin decides to speak with them, and they become friendly enough to set up regular meetings once a month. After two years of these meetings, Shin determines to help them in their education, somehow, but his intentions are thwarted by his arrest on suspicion of belonging to a political group intent on overthrowing the government of South Korea. His meetings with the children were thus considered politically dangerous by the police. Undoubtedly, Shin was on the left, as an interview in the Hankyoreh makes clear, even a Marxist, as a JoongAng Daily article reveals (though the term "ontology" as used in this article is decidedly odd!). Given the time's poverty and dictatorship, such politics were understandable. Moreover, his sentence of 20 years seems out of proportion to anything that he had done, and the Hankyoreh article states that "he never became a member of Tonghyukdang, the Unification Revolution Party, though the prosecution charged him with this." I am no expert on Shin's life and thoughts, of course, but I find his politics today less congenial than I would have when I was a young man from a poor family. Even today, I can still identify with those penurious young boys whom Shin befriended, which is perhaps why I find Memories of Chung-Gu Hoe so touching.

Three years after Shin's release from prison, one of the former members of his group sought him out, but the man had lost contact with the others and eventually again lost contact with Shin, much to Shin's regret. There is always something to regret in life, if one looks back in judgment, and on those dark sleepless hours of the night, when -- as my high school math teacher Jim Scott once expressed it -- "We have to justify ourselves to God," we even regret the things over which we've had little control, for the small possibility that we might have done better if we'd only tried a bit harder . . .

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