Review: The Wounded by Yi Cheong-jun

Cover of "The Wounded" by Yi Cheong-junYi Cheong-jun’s (or Yi Chong-jun, as usual there is disagreementㅠㅠ) The Wounded is a powerful exploration of the damage done by war, and the ‘face’ that creates the wounded, both those who can identify the source of their wounds, and those who are scarred in ways that do not have clear, particular source. The story was initially published in 1966 and won the 12th Dongin Literature Award.

It should be noted that this work has been reviewed twice before on this site, once as it was published in a different volume here, and the other by Dongmi Hwang, here. This review will use some elements of those existing reviews.

The Wounded  a compelling family story, as well as an exploration of the paths that art can take, where they may stop and stutter, and what the ‘reason’ or ‘meaning’ of art can be. That Yi manages to pull all of this off in fewer than 50 pages (with an equivalent number of pages in Korean), is a testament to his skill and economy.

The Wounded is a narratively complicated story, featuring a story within a story – really layers of stories within stories, and then a revelation of a final fiction that upsets the apple-cart. The artist suffers a “wound” that makes him faceless, while the doctor suffers a wound that he feels defines his face. In an intriguing philosophical sub-plot, the faceless artist argues with himself (although considering his brother) about cowardice/omission and action/commission. The former is associated with facelessness and the latter with a ‘defined’ face. As the story works its way through, it becomes clear that Yi believes that without defining the ‘unknown’ face of evil, morality or even just functionality, cannot be achieved.

The plot, on the other hand is simple, if melodramatic, containing two threads, one the relationship. Our narrator is a painter, who has recently lost his lover to an upcoming marriage. His brother, a doctor, has just lost his first patient. In response to the loss of his patient, the doctor has stopped practicing medicine, and begun writing a book that describes a traumatic experience, his murder of a fellow soldier, during the Korean War. When the painter begins to read the manuscript, he discovers that when his brother becomes writer’s-blocked, he, the painter also becomes blocked. The painter eventually does something unspeakable with his brother’s work, and in quick order this causes all the rest of the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place, with one notable exception for the painter

The “face” metaphor, what we can and cannot face, runs throughout the story, and in the hands of a lesser writer might have been too obvious, but Yi does an excellent job of balancing it’s symbolism with its usefulness.  Towards the start of the The Wounded the doctor looks at his brother’s painting of the faceless person and muses:

“… depending how you look at it, it could be a finished piece even through the face has no features. It could be God’ most faithful son – with no eyes or ears, living by merely following God’s will. But once it gets eyes, a mouth, a nose, ears, it’ll be different, won’t it?”

Why the doctor associates an unfinished face with goodness becomes clear as his story-within-the story ends, the doctor saying, “I saw a smiling, blood-covered face. It was mine.”

Strangely, on of the key points of the story is that to be able to see that face, is to be halfway to being able to confront it

Perhaps my summary of the work itself should be to quote Dongmi Hwang:

Yi Cheong-jun’s story is a reflection of an entire decade in the aftermath of a war where there was no conclusion. The Korean war split a nation of people in half literally and figuratively. Korea as a nation was torn apart and the deaths of thousands of soldiers did nothing to change that. Instead, the country remained divided, there was no conclusion, just a stalemate that continues to this day.

The psychology of an entire nation that had to deal with that reality is portrayed in The Wounded. Those who fought and those that didn’t, all were left with a wound that they cannot heal.

The translation, by Jennifer Lee, is quite good. In fact it appears to be a very close copy of her previous version, with some phrases taken away, and some added. In at least one case an error has been introduced, and there are occasional translations that seem clunky, such as 선상님 being literally translated into “Teacher” when the doctor refers to his younger brother, but those are minor issues when Lee has done a very literary job of bringing the anguish and pain of Yi’s work through.

The Wounded is a powerful story of art, tragic Korean history, and family relationships. Definitely work picking up.

Paperback: 139 pages
Publisher: ASIA Publishers (2012)
ISBN-10: 8994006214
ISBN-13: 978-8994006215

There are actually three collections here, “Bi-lingual Edition Modern Korean Literature Volume One”, Volume Two, and Volume Three 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
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.