The Red Room

While I have some issues with the kind of contents of The Red Room (i.e. more depressing separation literature) I did rather like the stories it contained. This is my review, which is likely to be in the next Acta Koreana. It is rather long. 😉

In his short, but rather useful afterword to The Red Room, Bruce Fulton briefly discusses each of the three stories in that collection, and argues that their central thematic similarity is that they are narratives of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Fulton’s analysis is accurate, but can be even more localized and explicit: All three works in The Red Room focus on the interactions between personal memories of the trauma of recent Korean history, the resultant PTSD and how this interaction manifests in the daily life of survivors. In the case of these stories, memories are intentionally repressed, obliterated, and endlessly re-played, with drastically varied results.

Along with the central theme, the three stories also share some plot elements, primary among them that in all three stories protagonists are haunted by the death of close family members, with all deaths being related to political strife surrounding the Korean War. These stories range from the very good to the outstanding, and they are presented to us, perhaps intentionally, in order from the slightly hopeful to the utterly bleak.

Perhaps the finest of the three stories is Pak Wan-sŏ’s “In The Realm of the Buddha”, which is also shortest of the stories at a relatively slender twenty-four pages. It is also the narratively simplest of the three works. Pak Wan-sŏ, as demonstrated by other work such as Who Ate Up All the Shinga is a master of using the family-based generational stories to stand for history. Also, as in much of Pak’s other works the Korean War is not far away (though not the dominant theme), nor is the death of a sibling (Pak lost her own brother in the war).

The story is a historically based tragedy, depicting the personal impact of the politically inspired double-murder of the narrator’s Brother and Father who are unnamed (but capitalized throughout in a successful attempt to universalize the characters). The narrator and Mother witness these killings, and they initially respond by attempting to cover up the reality of the events and to suppress their memories.

Pak is skilled at revealing the reality of life in short, nearly throwaway dialogue and descriptions. When, at a temple, Mother and daughter receive a shabby offertory table, all they can afford, Mother shrugs, “I begged them to keep it simple. After all, it’s the heart that counts.” The daughter notes, “My only response was a faint smile” (12). This nicely limns the jaded but affectionate relationship between the two women. Similarly, the narrator neatly describes her knowledge of Buddhism as enough to earn her, “A score of 50 out of 100 on a test. It was like looking at something through glasses worn on the tip of ones’ nose” (6). Even the title is clever, at the same time reflecting the reality of the narrative – most of which takes place in a Buddhist temple – and the relatively happy ending, which features the promise of at least some kind of release.

The narrator’s metaphors of memories are purely digestive – she says that she and Mother, “had consumed the dead” (15), and that she “always felt them in [her] innards; they were something indigestible in the pit of my stomach” (16). For a time, the narrator does attempt to tell her tale, but for various reasons can never get the tale just so, or heard in the way she desires and needs. In the end, however, with the promise of generational change in her mind it seems she finally does “digest” the lump in her stomach and “In the Land of the Buddha”ends on what can fairly be seen as a note of optimism.

The other two stories in the collection do not end on similar notes. O Chŏng-hui’s “Spirit on the Wind” proceeds from a similar personal/historical tragedy, but the nature of that tragedy is not revealed until late in the story. Like “A Visit to the Buddha” this is a family story, in this case a family horribly and inevitably broken down by history and psychological forces beyond its control.

“Spirit on the Wind” alternates between the first-person narration of a husband, Se-jung, and the third-person narration of Ŭn-su, his wife. When we first ‘meet’ Ŭn-su, she is absent. Ŭn-su’s initial absence and the difference in narrative person signify that Ŭn-su is not as tethered to social ‘reality’ as those around her. As the story begins, Se-jung ponders the latest in a series of his wife’s disappearances, the first of which occurred a mere six months after their marriage. As
Ŭn-su continues to wander off all of those around her, including her mother, become increasingly incredulous and troubled by Ŭn-su’s behavior, which they see as an abandonment of her family. Ŭn-su herself is unhappy. She vaguely identifies the root of her wanderlust in the fact that she was an adopted child, but this never quite seems reason enough and she is, “tired of wandering, tired of feeling that the home in which she was living was temporary” (57). Ŭn-su’s continued betrayal of the family bond strains everyone, yet she is unable to control the winds that drive her. Worse, she cannot seem to summon up the memories that might explain it, “Everything before that [her 5th birthday] seemed hidden behind a dark curtain: none of it had surfaced in her mind” (55-56).

The consistent and obvious metaphor in “Spirit on the Wind” is the wind itself, which is explicitly tied to memory: “Whenever she heard the wind, Ŭn-su would nod as if some long forgotten memory has just then surfaced“ (50); and she is left with only, “her anxious quest for identity to be stirred up and given wing by the slightest breath of wind” (56).

The wind can also be a symbol of illness as when Se-jung complains the Ŭn-su has, “the post horse curse. You’re like an untamed pony the way you roam about free as the wind” (54). O uses the wind freely but with a particular context and thus when the son, Sŭn
g-il says, “Mommy, why does the wind blow? I wish it didn’t do that” (59), a reader might intuit that trouble that lies ahead. It is here perhaps, that O loses a bit of the stories’ unity as Ŭn-su endures a gang rape that seems forced into the larger plot. Admittedly, the rape does provide the pretext (though in a way most readers might not expect) for Se-jung to bar Ŭn-su from their house, and thus furthers the plot. The rape also allows Ŭn-su to present a foreshadowing of what will be revealed about her past, “I’ve experienced something no one should have to experience, something so horrible I can’t even remember it. But I’m going to make sure I don’t remember it” (98-9). But in general the rape seems both too large and random an incident to occur when it does, and it seems played off quite too lightly after it does occur.

In any case, Ŭn-su’s marriage collapses. Ŭn-su is finally reunited with her memories, but by the time that comes, it is too late for a happy ending. Ŭn-su remains in search of that wind that can blow her clean. Unlike the narrator, from “In The Realm of the Buddha”, Ŭn-su is still in search of a way to come to terms with her memories.

Like “Spirit on the Wind”, Im Ch’ŏr-u’s “The Red Room” features dual and dueling narrator-protagonists. The first is a mild-mannered everyman/salaryman O Ki-sop whose casual act of kindness many years before, and slightly suspect family background combine to bring him to the attention of the Korean state security apparatus. The second protagonist is Detective Ch’oe Tal-shik who can say, like Macbeth, “I am in blood, / Stepp’d so far, that should I wade no more, / returning were a tedious as go o’er.” The story is that of Detective Ch’oe‘s attempts to break O Ki-sop down.

Not only does “The Red Room” feature dual narrators, but Detective Ch’oe also has his own internal narrators that represent the voice of his traumas (one voice from his domestic life, the other from his distant past). This internal narration gives an inner dialogue to Ch’oe that is sometimes problematic. He is a man of contradictions, perhaps more contradictions than one character can conveniently contain. It is not that it is unlikely that a man of high standing in his church could also be a torturer (cf. The Inquisition), rather that such a character should also have such clear inner awareness of the sources of his own trauma, be so able to connect those traumas to his existence in his daily life, also be aware of their outcomes, but then draw no conclusions from them. Despite this slightly puzzling aspect, the inner voice is terrifying and tells visceral tales of terror (the internal narration is italicized): “Look, Tal-Shik! He shouted at the top of his lungs, pointing at the bloody corpses. You have to see this. Those sons of bitches are Reds” (140). The Detective’s position is clear – he relentlessly relives his trauma, it cycles around in his head, and consequently he cannot relieve himself of it. Ch’oe’s internal retelling of his trauma is intense and relentless, he cannot make it cease, in fact draws a perverse kind of justification from it.

O’s writing is clear and direct, as befits a tale this blunt. A clever reader will spot a graceful nod to George Orwell and perhaps, in the title, to H. G. Wells’ short story, “The Red Room” and its conclusion that mankind is haunted by fear itself.

In “The Red Room” there is no hope of escape from trauma, the cycle is burned in too deeply, and recurs to frequently to break. At its conclusion Detective Ch’oe enjoys/endures an epiphany of revenge featuring the disturbing and vivid sanguinaryimage “A blood –colored sea filled the room ….As I prayed, I felt with vivid clarity a sacred joy and benevolence envelop me with warmth, before beginning finally to fill the Red Room” (189-90). Even O Ki-sop, the mild everyman becomes a vessel of hatred. As O Ki-sop finally wanders home in a daze, he accosts a stranger, “Something is rising inside me, something hot and burning. It’s spreading hot throughout me, building an enormous heat – It’s my rage” (188). So the cycle of trauma continues.

It is nearly supernumerary to note that the translation here is excellent. When an experienced reader of translated Korean literature sees Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton’s names on a translation, it is a guarantee of high quality. Still, with sloppy translation still occasionally going to print (The recent Aunt Suni, perhaps being the exemplar), it is worth noting translation that goes beyond workmanlike. The Fultons are brilliant at this, from accurate use of idiom on the granular level (“Next it was my brother-in-law’s pet theory”) to their ability to stay out of the way and let the stories tell themselves. In 190 pages of translation, there was not one “gotcha” moment, that moment in which a reader finds an infelicitous phrase, poor grammar, or other error.

The only slightly dissonant note in The Red Room is the foreword, which seems to stray from the subjects of the fictions. Written by noted historian Bruce Cumings, it accurately points out that the stories are “the fruits of the popular struggle for democracy in Korea” (xi), but the rest of his introduction seems oddly off track, focusing on resentment towards the United States and United States’ lack of understanding and knowledge of Korea. Certainly those realities exist, but they seem tangential to the stories themselves and at times the foreword seems to have been written for another book entirely.

Putting such minor criticisms aside, The Red Room is an excellent collection both for what it contributes in its approaches to and descriptions of trauma and memory, as well as revealing to Western readers the depth of the damage history has done to the social and psychological structure of the Korean psyche.