Review of Ch’oe Yun’s “There A Petal Silently Falls”

Ch'oe Yun

Ch'oe Yun

The book, There a Petal Silently Falls, by Ch’oe Yun, contains the story of that name as well as Whisper Yet and The Thirteen Scent Flower. It’s a stunningly good book, albeit not always a cheery one.

The short story There a Petal Silently Falls, was one of the first attempts in literature, if not the first attempt, to confront the outrage of the Kwangju Massacre. The Kwangju Massacre, sometimes called the Kwangju Uprising by those who were not sympathetic to its success, was one of the great South Korean on South Korean atrocities of the democratization process:

On 17 May 1980, martial law was declared by South Korean military leaders trying to quell a growing demand by the people for democratisation. Eliding quite a bit of history, I quote BBC News Asia:

The military leadership, led by Major General Chun Doo-hwan, sent paratroopers to Korea’s major cities.

The southwestern city of Kwangju was a particular centre for the pro-democracy movement, with students and their professors leading demonstrations against the new junta.

….students demonstrating against the closed schools gathered in front of Chonnam National University and were beaten and chased off by paratroopers.

The students regrouped and began marching to the downtown area.

Paratroops again moved in and began beating and arresting demonstrators as well as innocent bystanders.

…Angered by the brutality, ordinary citizens began to join the demonstrations.

…On 21 May, paratroopers fired into a crowd which had gathered to demand an apology for beatings and arrests administered in previous days.

As a result of the bloodshed, the demonstrators began to arm themselves, forming a defensive force called the Citizens Army.

The authorities sealed Kwangju off from the rest of the country and troops withdrew to the outskirts of the city.

But at dawn on the ninth day, paratroops and regular soldiers moved on protesters gathered at the Provincial Hall.

The mopping up operation took no more than an hour and a half, as the full force of the army was unleashed on the poorly protected demonstrators.

Many were killed as troops fired into the crowds. Others were beaten to death.

In the aftermath of the massacre, under heavy censorship and a government that denied the massacre had been committed, Ch’oe Yun stepped up in artful fashion and in a non-specific story of death, madness, and and remembered trauma narrated a trauma that almost denied narration.

The story is a multi-narrator examination of a teenage girl’s descent and occupation of madness after witnessing, and perhaps being partially responsible for, her mother’s murder. The story is told from the perspective of the girl, her abuser, and a group of college students (friends of the girl’s brother) who are attempting to find her. The multiple narrators dovetail with the often fractured language, imagery, and story-telling (particularly from the girl) of the story. The literary beauty of this work is partly because while it is clearly about the Kwangju Massacre, its non-specificity about where the atrocity occurred allows any reader to imagine it as any massacre and its results. This was, likely, also a politically astute strategy for Ch’oe at the time.

Ch’oe notes, in an interview with the Japan Focus:

…when dealing with a brutal and desperate reality, reality can actually become an anti-literary environment for the writing of reality. This is because the momentary utility of literature is always situated in conflict with a more universalizing, literary sense of time which seeks to leap beyond the limited, representational time which literature possesses. I believe that it is from the dilemma of the two temporalities, the two objectives – the writing of reality and the creation of reality through writing – that in fact all genuine literature which writes reality has been born. This is what I attempted to create in my earlier works such as ‘There a Petal Silently Falls’, ‘The Grey Snowman’, or ‘His Father’s Keeper’ .

It is interesting to note that this was Ch’oe’s debut work, which I think says something about the kind of will and intensity the authorial Ch’oe has.

Whisper Yet is the story I found least compelling, which is praising with faint dams, as the other stories are transcendent.  Of the story, Ch’oe herself says, in The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus:

The two kinds of whispering in ‘Whisper Yet’ – the whispering between the narrator’s father, a man who had fled to the South from his hatred of communism, and the character Ajaebi, who had attempted to escape to the North but been arrested in the South, and the whispering of a mother to her eight-year-old daughter, speaking to her of the future in the form of a monologue of mother to unborn child — these two kinds of whispers in ‘Whisper Yet’ sought to expose the unresolved relationship between North and South Korea, always confronting each other through ‘dialogue’, in order to suggest a different language, the language of whispers. For novels, the only way to respond to the questions posed by reality, is to come up with new ways of writing. This is more than a mere symbol or a reaction to the merciless challenges of reality.

It is still a grand story, with a South Korean communist hiding in plain sight by working for a North Korean exile. Ch’oe’s work is always rife with the contradictions that make up life.

The final story in this collection is The Thirteen Scent Flower which I have already reviewed here, but I update that in the text to follow.

As in Cho’es The Last of Hanako the ending begins to become clear about halfway through the story, but it is not based on sudden revelation (and one that comes as no surprise), but rather it flows naturally from the events of the story. Two young lovers, Bai and Green Hands create the “Winter Crysanthemum” a new, beautiful, semi-narcotic, and potentially quite valuable flower. The flower is a result of their love, dedication to handcraft, and partly to their desire to flee society. As the fame of their flower grows, that same society naturally encroaches the couple, and they find their brilliant creation threatened by extinction. Take the “flower” to be symbolic of their love (or not, really) and you have the standard elements of the “us against the world” love story. But The Flower with Thirteen Fragrances has a bit more to say than just that.

Ch’oe masterfully mixes her elements of fairy-tale with descriptions of the ‘outside’ world that very deftly navigate space between parody and hard-edged description. From the outset Bai is described as living in his own fairy-tale:

Every night he walked on the plains of the North Pole alone. Lights seemed to shine from afar, but they always receded when he drew near. He was breathless and felt so cold that his blood seemed to have frozen in his veins. If I don’t reach that light, I’m going to fall down on this floor of ice and freeze to death, he murmured, all the while straining to put one frozen foot forward at a time. I’ll find a kind- hearted Eskimo girl and marry her, he thought. We’ll have a faithful reindeer and sleigh dogs, and we’ll have a baby in time. When the baby grows up, I’ll take him out hunting. The march on the polar plains taxed his strength to the utmost, and he woke up just as he was on the threshold of death.
Do I have to go all the way to the North Pole to have such a simple dream? he thought as he woke up, rubbing the soles of his feet which itched as if they really had been frostbitten in the North Pole. But, as soon as he fell asleep again, he was once more on the vast Polar plains, where there was neither noise, gravity, pain nor sorrow.

As the new flower becomes popular, photographers arrive, pa-jeong stands pop up, and cheesy nicknacks begin to proliferate – K-pop even steps in and pens a popular ditty.

Outside the village here is a wonderful scene in a government office as officials attempt to craft, in 40 minutes, a complete program with which to deal with the horticultural, social, and medical implications of the thirteen different flowers. Among other important discussions they argue over whether it is better to cure Alzheimers or urological complaints (asthma having already been discarded). This meeting concludes with the farcical:

“our forty minutes are already up. We’ll make that the conclusion and close this conference.”
“But what conclusion do you mean?”
“What we’ve just come up with.”

I hear echoes of Alice in Wonderland there.

Yun even jokes about Korea’s sometimes annoying desire to create a “representative” example of everything:

“Let me go on to the next point. ‘We would like to invite you to display seven rare flowers of your country at the World Rare Flower Exhibition to be held later this year in this city. We are certain that that will further promote friendly relations between your country and ours. We would appreciate it if… ” 
“But you read that letter the last time!” 
“Did I? The problem is, there’s a great deal of conflict between the various botanical and horticultural societies over this matter. The National Gardening Association wants to send three kinds of roses of Sharon, two kinds of pines and two kinds of bamboos to represent the spirit of our country. The Southern and Western associations insist on sending plants that thrive best in their regions, mostly orchids. So, that puts us in a dilemma.” 
“We can’t waste our time discussing again what we’ve already gone through the last time. How can we represent our country in an international exhibition without the rose of Sharon?” 
“But the rose of Sharon isn’t a rare plant. We can’t violate the conditions of the exhibition from our very first participation.” 
“But which is more important? “Representative,” or “Rare”? “Representative,” surely.” 

Finally, Ch’oe introduces three un-named characters (They are known as K, L, and M, but might as easily be Paeckche, Silla, and Koguryo) each of whom hope to profit from publishing credit related to the flowers. This section is an amusing commentary on personal pride, patriotism, and idealism, and the possible infamy that can be associated with each. Individually, each of the ‘letter-men’ muses on how he might steal credit for the flower and how their name for the as-yet unnamed blossom, is superior to that of the others.

In the end, only their hatred that someone else gets credit remains, and they successfully conspire to destroy the Wind Chrysanthemum. In fact, they proudly trumpet their venal reunion as evidence of their sincerity and probity. This is an amusing take on the traditional notion of modern Korean Literature that re-union, the end of diaspora, is innately a good thing.

13 Flowers is a funny, almost slapstick in places, story of love and exile, and a brilliant way to end a collection with begins with the more harrowing There a Petal Silently Falls.

Finally, as I noted in my previous comments on this work, it is available at: http://hompi.sogang.ac.kr/anthony/klt/97wint/choeyun.htm.

This is a great (but as noted, sometimes downcast) collection of three stories and it can be found on Amazon for about fifteen dollars new, and under a dollar used.

Surely you have an internet dollar to spare?^^

2 thoughts on “Review of Ch’oe Yun’s “There A Petal Silently Falls”

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