It is not easy to make Korean history, which has so often been tragedy, into a farce, but Seo Giwon (ably edited by the redoubtable Kevin O’Rourke) pulls off this unlikely trick in his The Ma Rok Biographies. In three short stories (stories 2, 3, and 5 from the original work) , all featuring protagonists named “Ma,” Seo handily portrays the random, absurd, and farcical nature of Korean history in three different eras; the pre-Japanese feudal system; under Japanese rule, and; during the Korean war. In the course of this he also passes judgment on individual humans: He finds them powerless, feckless, and silly; flotsam and jetsam on seas of indeterminacy. Finally, he also passes judgment on human systems, our war-making and our political systems particularly, and finds them wanting.
FALLING UP – THE MA ROKSOM BIOGRAPHY
The first profile (the second in the original text) is perhaps the most random of the three stories. In it a hapless political-science student is battered about by events surrounding the North Korean advance down the Korean peninsula. In hopes of escaping the North Koreans, Ma Roksom swims the Han River and is immediately arrested as a North Korean spy. By a bit of luck, he is recognized by a friend and instead of becoming a prisoner of war, or being killed as a spy, begins a long and perambulating series of events in which, until the end, even his most ridiculous behavior is eventually rewarded. After his swim across the Han, Ma heads down to Busan, far away from the encroaching communists.
In, perhaps, an intentional parody of the odd position of power that English sometimes confers in South Korea, Ma Roksom’s limited ability to say random English words gains him a position as interpreter. This position causes him great psychic and physical strain, and he is almost happy to lose it and move to a position as an interrogator closer to the lines. There, Ma ‘attacks’ two prisoners, in fact he is more or less trying to reason with them, but he gains a reputation as a tough-guy that follows him even as he is transferred to a job even closer to the front. Again, he is a translator, and again he fails. This results in his move to the Military Patrol, by now all the way up near Pyeonyang where he is given command of a POW camp. A reader can’t help but notice that as soon as Ma Roksom starts “winning” through his inexplicable tussles with reality, he moves closer and closer to just that which he had endeavored to escape.
At the POW camp, Ma recognizes old friends who he knows are not communists. At this point Ma makes his second act of personal will (the first being his swim across the Han) and directs a fraudulent execution scene that allows his friends a clean escape.
In a universe of random absurdity, however, directed deeds – even good deeds – represent a tear in the fabric of life, and of course Ma is caught and punished for his attempt to instill some kind of sense into his life.
The punishment is also absurd. Ma is forced to strip down to his underpants (although the translation also says “naked”) and run across a bridge in the dead of winter. Ma thinks about the absurdity of crossing two rivers only in his underpants but his final thought is that “The scene when he reached the neck of the bridge was gratifying: he was like a sprinter breaking the tape.”
As a comment on the war itself, Seo is clearly arguing something that could only be argued in a farce: that decisions were being arrived at arbitrarily and that the situation outstripped the ability of any understanding; so reason was tossed out.
FALLING DOWN – THE MA JUN BIOGRAPHY
The second profile (third in the original book) features Ma Jun, a “conscientious official” who is actually officiates nothing. This story likely takes place in the late 1600s, as it is placed in the middle of the historical power struggle between the Noron and Soron political parties during a period in which the Noron control the country that is also an “end of the century culture.” (p 52)
In any case, the Ma family has been in decline for several generations, are associated with the out of power Soron, and if Ma does not receive an official position, his family will be stricken from the ranks of nobility. Certainly Geo presents the test for an official position as rigged, but Seo is never a writer to suggest only one “reason,” because ultimately he is arguing that reason has little to do with outcome. So, Seo adds another burden to Ma – unfortunately, generations of bad luck and malnutrition have taken a toll:
The presumption was that a hole had been bored in the Ma family brain. The tragedy of the father and son was their complete failure to realize this.
Seo’s breezy and clever style is evident in this passage from the absurd image of the family sharing one brain, to the notion that the damage done from boring into it is so great that the damaged themselves cannot assess it.
Before his death Ma Jun’s father counsels Ma Jun to assiduously court a local politician, Lord Kim. Unconvinced, Ma Jun seeks advice from his friend Choe Chiyol, who recommends steadfastness in the Soron cause and studied indifference to base political power. Ma Jun eventually rejects Choe’s advice and insinuates himself into the house of Lord Kim. As the story comes to its climax, Ma Jun is given a family-saving magistracy in Jeongeup at just the time that his feckless friend Choe leads a hopeless attack on Lord Kim’s court.
This is an act of suicidal rebellion and in the course of it Choe reprises Geo’s estimate of the Ma family as have a “hole … bored … in the … brain” by braining himself with an axe. This senseless act by Choe causes Lord Kim to,whimsically give the magistracy of Jeongeup to Choe, who Kim rightly identifies as a useful idiot. In several strokes of a pen (“the bespectacled recorder’s writing brush moved diligently”) the Ma family line is destroyed by random, absurd and farcical events.
If the first biography revealed the farcical nature of the Korean war, this biography shows the farcical nature of the feudal political system and neo-Confucian social system that pre-dated Japanese colonialism.
FALLING FOR IT – THE MA YEONG BIOGRAPHY
The third profile (fifth in the original book) begins with an absurdist introduction: “I propose to deta
il one undocumented case, a man by the name of Ma Yeong.” From this technically impossible opening salvo to the (almost) happy ending of the short story Geo paints the picture of a rather charming collaborator named Ma Yeong. This profile takes place during, obviously, the Japanese occupation of Korea.
The story is of two father-son relationships gone bad. First is that of the collaborator, whose son hates school, because the other children tease him about his father’s job. Ma Yeong responds with the “everyone else is doing it” argument, and I found this the only slightly weak section in all three of the stories. The bigger problem is to be found in the household of Mr. Kim, a far larger collaborator who serves on a puppet governmental agency of the Japanese. Mr. Kim’s son loathes him and becomes an anti—colonialist.
Ma Yeong is being pressured by his handlers to produce something actionable, and the plot revolves around his efforts to both ensure that Mr. Kim’s son is not killed by the Japanese and that Ma himself can turn something useful over to the Japanese. It would ruin the story to reveal the clever stratagem the Yeong uses, but he does manage to navigate the Scylla of the Japanese and the Charybdis of Mr. Kim and get out of the situation with a bit of aplomb.
This is an amusing story, but it has to be noted that it breaks the mold of the other two in the sense that this Ma is able to use information, reason, and planning to arrive at a reasonably sensible, and to some extent remunerative solution. As a non-Korean reader I suspect that in this story Seo was not able to resist the urge to tell a B’rer Rabbit type story in which the humble Korean outwits the colonial Japanese. The absurdism in the third profile is not carried to its, if it is not misusing the word, logical conclusion.
A good story, entertainingly told, but not precisely of the same cloth as the previous two.
The translation is quite good, getting the randomness and stupidity of Seo’s universe across with appropriate verve. One example: In the third/fifth Biography the translator gets bureaucratese exactly right:
The background to his becoming that most hated of entities, a police informer, was not without its own extenuating circumstances. However, a prolix introduction of such trivialities at the beginning of this account is not to the purpose. Suffice it to say that the noble ambience emanating from his single character name indicated that he was the seed of a family line of some substance.
That’s just brilliant stuff by Seo and Kevin O’Rourke, with the language simultaneously amplifying and deflating the bureaucratic pretensions of the narrator.
The liner notes, on the other hand, seem a bit suspect to me. They claim:
Ma Rok, which stands for the various protagonists with the surname of Ma in this series of five short stories (of which only three are included here), actually means “the horse and the deer” in Chinese. This odd combination of the two animals refers to a classical Chinese anecdote in which the powerful can coerce others into seeing a horse as a deer.
I’m honestly not sure how this applies to the book I was reading as this particular anecdote is more about the coercive power of the state, and the stories in Ma Rok are much more focused on randomness. I’d be much more likely to attribute the title to another Chinese anecdote, the race of the horse and the deer, in which a horse and a deer who are friends are brought to death and slavery by their absurd envy, and the power of the fox. In addition, “marok” is the Japanese word for idiot, which also seems a bit closer to the mark. I have a suspicion that the liner notes are in some kind of error here, although only Seo could know for sure, and I’m not sure how to get in touch with him to find out.