Slow Bullet by Lee Dae-hwan is a deeply affecting family story of a Korean veteran of the US-Vietnam war, and the price he and his family pays for it. This is a little known part of Korean history (it has also been dealt with in Hwang Sok-Yong’s The Shadow of Arms, although this work looks at the war through an entirely different lens). In short, Park Chung-hee often traded Korean “workers” (in this case soldiers) for hard currency (another story which covers this is Our Friend’s Homecoming (돌아온 우리의 친구) by Shin Sang-ung (신 상 웅) which discusses it in the context of Korean workers being “rented-out” for 3-d jobs in the Middle East.
First things first for those of us who are slow (as I am) Slow Bullet( 술로불릿) by Lee Dae-hwan is not the same as Aimless Bullet (오발탄) by Yi Beomseon (curse you ever-changing Romanization of Korean names!). So don’t think this is just a re-translation of the early classic.
The story begins with a man, Ik-su awakening in his house, amongst his barley fields, and while trying to pee without waking his wife, ruminating on barley and death. He ruminates on death because he is in fact, chronically ill, supported by his wife’s work at a cannery. He is ill because he handled chemical weaponry (including Agent Orange) during the Vietnam War. These chemicals have come to haunt him and his family. As the story opens his son Yeong-ho is coming home to visit, which is extremely unusual. Yeong-ho, is in a wheelchair, with a mysterious malady that it is clear from the book, is the result of chromosomal damage to Ik-su. Worse, there there is a second son Yong-seop who lives with them and is starting to develop mysterious symptoms himself. Angry, partially because his father’s illness is being covered by the press, Yong-seop is hiding out at a friend’s house.
The novel goes back in time, reconstructing Ik-su’s life, describing his time in training, his time in Vietnam, and all the events leading up to the present. There is a scathingly ironic scene in which Ik-su, realizing he is about to get very sick again (his symptoms are always present, but a times they flare up dramatically) receives a call from his ex captain Bak, who fought the Vietnamese alongside Ik-su. Bak, now, is a businessman who works with the Vietnamese. In other words, it the same as it has been with the U.S., the war only did what wars often do, took lives immediately, and took lives over time, with the outcome over time being irrelevant on the international scale, and nothing having been accomplished.
At home, the situation is tense, with one angry son present in a wheelchair, another angry son absent, and the press hovering around like flies on a corpse. Even the wife, the strength of the family, cracks, and Yeong-ho seems not only angry but intentionally provocative.
As Ik-su has expected, his symptoms flare up again and he must be hospitalized. He and his wife go to the hospital, leaving Yeong-ho at home. To say more would be to reveal an ending that mixes sacrifice with pathos and suggests that the sacrifice and pathos are not going to end, despite a final act of desperation/sacrifice that is quite moving.
The title is unusual – it is a Korean phonetic rendering of “Slow Bullet” (숱토우 불릿) rather than a native Korean title, Lee’s clear statement that although this is a novel of problems in Korea, it came from the English-speaking world, specifically the US.
Slow Bullet is a sad family story, yet filled with family loyalty, and about as clear as it can be that war is the province of the little people, but not to their advantage. This is an idea that one would think obvious, but looking at a newspaper proves it not to be. Depressive in that strange Korean way that leaves one hopeful, this is worth picking up for its family-under-stress nature, or for its shining light on a little-known aspect (particularly internationally) of one of the costs of Korea’s success and its partnership with the United States.