Review of “Sun-i Samch’on” (Aunt Suni – 순이삼촌) by Hyun Gi-young (현기영)

Sun-i Samch’on, Aunt Suni,  순이삼촌

By Dongmi Hwang

Sun-i Samch’on (Aunt Suni – 순이삼촌) –  is a work of historical fiction. Hyun Gi-young (현기영) writes with the clear purpose of exposing and validating hidden events that happened on the island of Jeju in the southernmost part of Korea. The story opens with a man returning home for the first time in eight years. As he travels he realizes how much of his past and the past of the island he has buried.

Upon his arrival, he attends a memorial service for his grandfather. During the service the extended family gathers and the death of Sun-i samch’on is revealed. With this revelation begins a passionate discussion of the islands tortured past in which thousands of people were brutally killed by military forces. In particular, the events surrounding a people’s uprising on April 3rd 1948 where, according this book about 30,000 people on Jeju were massacred.

The story, however, is told on a much smaller scale The protagonist personalizes the events through flashbacks of his aunt, Sun-i Samch’on, a woman who suffered greatly after the brutal events and never recovered. Ultimately, Sun-i Samch’on’s death by suicide was a direct result of what happened thirty years prior.

When I first began reading “Sun-i Samch’on” I was immediately impressed with the Hyun’s description of the conflicting emotions in his protagonist. As he takes the flight down south from Seoul to Jeju island he is remorseful over the brevity of the trip. The ease of his travel contradicts the difficulty of his decision to face his past. His mind is in turmoil as he smoothly lands on the airstrip.

All of this is written very simply and is easily sympathised with by the reader. The translation does a very good job taking, what I would consider, very Korean sentiments and making them accessible to foreigners.

At the time the story is written, the protagonist’s feelings are a fitting reflection of Korea’s attitude towards Jeju Island’s history. It’s a history that was ignored and buried and only within the current century officially brought to light. Hyun’s writing is not only a beautiful example of Korean prose but also a testament of character. He wrote the truth when it was being denied and suffered for it, being detained and tortured by the police.

Sun-i Samch’on is worth the read for its historical value alone, the fact that Hyun Giyoung is a brilliant writer is a fantastic bonus.

ADDED NOTE (from Charles):

Please be certain to purchase the Asia Publishers version of this from the Bilingual Edition of Modern Korean Fiction linked here, not the horrible translation Aunt Suni, which was reviewed here on KTLIT.

Publisher: ASIA Publishers (2012)
ISBN-10: 8994006230
SBN-13: 978-8994006239

There are actually four collections here, “Bi-lingual Edition Modern Korean Literature Volume One”, Volume Two, Volume Three, and Volume Four has just been published. The collections are of 15 small volumes each, and each collection is broken into topics with the first collections comprising Division, Industrialization, and Women; the second comprising Liberty, Love, and North/South, and; the third collection comprising Seoul, Tradition, and Avant Garde (can’t say about the fourth collection as I haven’t yet seen it)
In addition, each story comes with a kind of critical summary, several bits of critical analysis, and a biography of the author. When these pieces are put together, it makes the stories much easier to read, as the necessary cultural and historical background is neatly presented to the reader.


3 thoughts on “Review of “Sun-i Samch’on” (Aunt Suni – 순이삼촌) by Hyun Gi-young (현기영)

  1. This intrigues me as a publisher.

    Okay, tell me more.

    Is it highbrow? Ulysses by Joyce is historical fiction.

    Or is it more like Master and Commander and middle brow?

  2. Wow… interesting question…. it is not Joycean in the sense of intentional literaturality (to separate from literality^^), nor is it middle-brow at all, because it is a ‘serious’ look at a historical event. I’d put it in between, partly because the genre’s don’t match well. For “modern” stuff I’d say Pak Min-gyu of Jung Young-moon (who I believe is consciously trying to be *that guy^). Ask me the question a different way and I might have a better answer?

  3. As a publisher I am interested in potential market share — which means appeal to average (average!) — audiences.

    So, I am interested in whether it is a real page turner, that takes a reader on a powerful and compelling emotional journey and in which the reader identifies with the protagonist.

    Readers who are not connected to Korea will have little interest in the history; the story itself and the storytelling must be compulsively readable.

    In fact being Korean actually hurts, since no English-language readers associate Korean literature with enjoyable or emotionally meaningful literature.

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