“Show me one soul that wasn’t to blame!” With the slam of a hand and a short sentence, a character in Hwang Sok-Yong’s The Guest sums up one of the bloodiest chapters in modern Korean history, and a moment that Hwang revisits decades later.
That moment is a series of atrocities in Northern Korea that, while originally blamed on US troops, was actually internecine fighting of the worst sort, as people once friends, now separated by Christianity and Marxism (each a “guest” in terms of the title) butcher each other brutally. Although both of these forces are in some ways as alien to Korea as the United States Army, Hwang’s book caused a firestorm of criticism from both North and South Korea, which preferred to pretend that all evil in the events was done by outsiders.
The other meaning of the guest is referential, to the wave of smallpox that raced across Korea, introduced by foreigners, and which was defended against primarily by shamanistic ritual. Hwang, in fact, fashions this in the form of such a ritual (a 굿 or “goot”), a kind of 12-step program to erase the lingering guilt. The final chapter, in fact, is a gut-like exorcism.
The story begins with two brothers in New York, Ryu Yosop, who is about to return to North Korea to visit long-lost relatives, and his brother Ryu Yohan who was one of the pre-eminent killers of the incident. Just before Yosop leaves, Yohan dies, and armed with only one of Yohan’s cremated bones, Yosop departs for Korea to meet his family, perhaps make peace with his past, and leave his part of his brother’s remains in North Korean ground.
The story flips between Yosop’s quotidian recount of the events of his trip (although these are not without their humor) and the much more interesting events he begins to share with the ghosts of his past. This narrative approach can be confusing, as it is often difficult to determine exactly which ghost is confronting Yosop, but as both stories wind towards their conclusions, it both becomes clearer who is who, and at the same time less important that a reader precisely indentify the ghostly characters – they speak as a chorus of pain and, possibly, forgetfulness if not forgiveness. LOL, which is not to say that you shouldn’t try to understand who is speaking, but that the overall story is more important than it’s details.
As the story nears its conclusion, the details of the massacres are excruciatingly detailed, but in a historical rather than horror-show way. Hwang does an outstanding job of presenting North Korea as a real’ place although this is not at the expense of portraying it as completely in the grip of its political stance – There is a classic seen in which Yosop is treated to a series of “survivor” stories from North Koreans that both he and the “survivors” know to be completely farcical.
Hwang himself is a lighting-rod of a figure, and if you are interested in his history as a freedom-fighter in Kwangju, an enemy of the South Korean state, exile, and ex-student of Dongguk University (!!), you could do a lot worse than check out his wikipedia page, which is quite complete.
The Guest is quite literary, daring, and shines a light on a history that not many English-language readers will be aware of.
Pick it up!