The Portable Library of Korean Literature • Short Fiction • 4 • Jimoondang Publishing • Seoul
In The Wounded Yi Chongjun deals with issues of identity. As in An Assailant’s Face that identity is tightly connected to the question of a face, in fact in both stories the question of what and who the face is, and to what extent it is important to know one’s face. Obviously, face is used here in the symbolic sense of identity
The Wounded is a complicated story, featuring a story within a story – really layers of stories within stories, and then a revelation of a final fiction that sets the entire story on its ear. The key characters are two brothers, with two peripherally related female characters serving more or less to show the outlines of the personalities of the brothers. One brother is a doctor and the other an artist. 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 doctor has just lost his first patient and the artist has lost a potential wife. The doctor’s response to his trauma is to begin a piece of fiction, based on an event in his life (and related to a childhood trauma), in which a soldier (the doctor), trapped behind enemy lines, kills one of his compatriots. The doctor, unfortunately, cannot bring himself to finish that story. In a doubly unfortunate event, the artist, who is struggling with a painting, reads his brother’s story and somehow finds its inability to conclude to affect his own ability to complete his painting. This painting is intended to be his first painting that includes a human face. That the painter is attempting this is implicitly tied to the fact that Hyein, one of his students, to whom he was attracted and with whom he had a brief physical relationship, is marrying another man.
The doctor’s fiction is of three men trapped behind enemy lines. The first character is the ‘narrator’ of the story within a story, and that is the doctor. The second character is a hapless, and perhaps masochistic, soldier named Private Kim. The final character is the sadistic Sergeant Gwanmo, who is also a homosexual rapist. With Private Kim wounded, and all three trapped behind enemy lines, the captain decides that there are not enough supplies for three characters and that Private Kim should be killed, “when the first snow falls.”
Upon writing the scene in which the first snowfall does fall, the doctor is seized by writer’s block and cannot write the critical scene of the murder, what he has written ends with the doctor, saying, “it was then I thought it was alright for him to die.” As the doctor has already admitted to the painter that he committed a murder, it is clear that the doctor killed Kim, although Gwanmo’s role in the murder is unclear at the outset.
The painter, exasperated beyond patience, takes it upon himself to conclude his brother’s story, hoping to bring them both closure. This is a clever plot development from a purely writerly point of view, as it creates a story within the story within the story. The painter has his brother pull Private Kim from the cave and shoot him in the snow.
This leads the Doctor to reveal the “real” story he intended to write – I will not spoil this, as it is the beginning of a brilliant run up to an event in the present that shatters every story previously told. Suffice it to say that the tightly wound plot releases in a most unexpected way.
As I mentioned at the outset, the face is the key symbol/metaphor of The Wounded. 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.”
The painter argues that this final revelation will be give the doctor the strength to continue, as he will have defined himself. The painter feels that he is crippled by NOT having a face and at the end of the story, after the doctor has destroyed the faceless painting, the artist reflects:
My work, my canvas lay in pieces like a broken mirror. I might have to lose even more before I could start over again. Perhaps I would never be able to find a face. Unlike the one behind my brother’s pain, there was no face in mine.
While Yi suggests, in this pairing of stories, the difficulty of putting a single “face” to victimizers or victims of the Korean War, he clearly also sees the necessity of confronting the ‘faces’ involved in it, if only to provide a platform from which to go forward. . frame
Yi echoes this theme in the sub-plot of the painter and his student Hyein. Hyein sends a letter (yet another framed device in this multiply scaffolded work ) to the painter analyzing him as having a “war wound” despite the fact that it is his brother who was actually in the war. Hyein writes:
You … have a wound with no origin. … Your symptoms are more serious, and your wound is more acute because you have no idea where it is located and even what kind of wound it is.
Technically speaking, Yi Chongjun is a talented writer, as carrying off his ambitiously multi-framed novel suggests. He is also quick and skilled (and so, I should add, is his translator) at drawing a character. A reader learns all he needs to know about the Doctor’s wife in two quick passages in which the painter describes her as:
The kind of person who enjoys humiliating actors by applauding when they miss their lines.
My sister in law disliked complicated stories
Which is a doubly judgmental line when placed in a novel of such labyrinthine nature.
The combination of Yi’s skill as a writer and the powerful story he tells, makes The Wounded an excellent short novel for a beginning reader of Korean literature. It is modern in the telling, has existential themes that resonate without requiring particular knowledge of Korea or its most recent war, and it also evokes the psychological damage caused by the fratricidal (it is no coincidence that the characters here are brothers) war.
NEXT: The Ma Rok Chronicles: A much lighter look at the absurdities of war.