Cho Hae-il’s novella America is initially deceiving. Given its title, one might expect it to be an emigration story, but in fact it is anything but. Instead, it is the story of one man’s return to his home in Korea. That ‘return’ in fact, is from his mandatory military service and his own alienation, some self-imposed and some the result of his tragic loss of his nuclear family.
The “America” to which the title refers is in fact the soldiers and army base which lies adjacent to Tongduchon, the town in which the story takes place. It is worth noting something odd that Cho does with this book title, that is he spells out “America” in Hangul (아메리카), rather than giving it its ‘normal’ Korean name of 미국. I’m assuming this is done to further express the foreign nature of the US army base in its Korean setting. The main character comes to his uncle’s whorehouse and is quickly given the job of doorman. As the story progresses he struggles with his role, both in the brothel and town, while bedding an impressive number of the girls who work at the brothel. The town is chaotic, and so are the events in the story – suicide, murder, a drought followed by a flood, racism (from several quarters), and a key job offer if he returns to Seoul. Told dramatically, and with many plot moves later reprised in soap operas, the pace never slackens and this is an easy novella to read in one sitting.
HOWEVER, some of the language is extremely graphic, more or less in line with the graphic topics of the novella itself. If you are offended by the N-word or C-word (to pick two examples which are abundant in the novella), this may not be a book you want to pick up.
Which would be a shame, because America does address one of the classic themes of Modern Korean literature, diaspora and return, and also provides a gritty window into some of the realities of post-war (sited in 1969, it is actually quite post-war, but the war still remains as a character) Korea.
The novella concludes with a short two paragraphs that sum up the message of the story quite well. While the settingmay be an explosion of chaos, in the background the endlessly striving Koreans gather together to go off and begin the rebuilding process; a process that Korea has been undergoing, on and off, for nearly a century.
This is a short work. The entire book is only 104 pages and that includes a peculiar section of criticism and an utterly hysterical autobiographical section in which Cho reveals himself to be self-abnegatory nearly to the point of disappearing. About his introduction to writing he says:
Joins the creative writing club. Decides to become a novelist. This decision serves as a major factor later contributing to make him graduate from high school with such lamentable achievements.
The translation can be a bit odd, and there or too many simple grammatical and spacing mistakes. But once reading starts, these flaws fade into the background and the book works towards its oddly satisfying conclusion.