Yi Chongjun “An Assailant’s Face”

The Portable Library of Korean Literature • Short Fiction • 4 • Jimoondang Publishing • Seoul

Yi Chongjun’s The Wounded (and the included An Assailants Face) has had me a bit stumped.

(Parenthetically I should note that Yi, unfortunately, died last year of lung cancer)

Together are important works, they deal with the traditional modern Korean fixations, war and bifurcation, but they are also a bit of a move out of the grim and on-the-ground realism of that genre of modern fiction. The latter is a reason I should like them, and I guess I actually did like them.

But they pretty much halted me from writing for reasons that had more to do with my preconceptions than the works themselves.

First, I was put off by the (to me) predictability of the back flap, which begins:

The civil war between the North and South left both physical and psychological wounds and the permanent division of the nation still haunts those families separated by the 38th parallel.

I originally thought, cripes, here we go again. In a way, I just didn’t know what to do with these stories.

I’ve backed off this stance a bit. As I work through my ever-expanding reading list I realize that my response to these Korean themes, that they are repetitive and self-reflective to the point of solipsism is grounded in my western upbringing, particularly coming from the US. My reaction of, “why do they keep harping on this stuff,” would be no different than a Korean reading US fiction and wondering why we focus on automobiles, neurosis, and infidelity in our short fiction. It is an identity that the things important to a culture are repeated and a reader (by “a reader” I mean me) should look at this fact as important cultural evidence and not as some chore to wade through. Unless it’s Russian literature – then it’s just too bloody long to wade through!

But second, I think I was trying to assess all the levels that Yi writes at in these works, because he is a fairly skilled writer and I could sense that there was something in the stories that I just wasn’t getting.

To break myself free of my little blockage I’m going to review each story in this volume individually, beginning with the second one, An Assailant’s Face. I chose this first, because both stories, really, ask questions about the face of the ‘other.’ So even though An Assailant’s Face is the second story in The Wounded, here it goes!

An Assailant’s Face is technically clever in several ways. Yi is a tactical writer and he does a variety of things to slowly bring his real story into focus. His first tactic is to break the story into three sections, which are delineated (besides chapter numbers) by increasing technical focus on the characters. What does that mean? In the first section there is only one named character, and that character is the one who has already disappeared – one who will never actually be seen. Characters are, the boy, the sister, the man. In this way they also become generic, or perhaps more accurately, symbolic characters for all of Korea at the time. This is in important strategy because it ties in which Yi’s broader argument about the effects of the war. In the second chapter Yi brings a bit more focus as the boy (although explicitly never losing the generic wounded boy within) becomes a professor. Finally, in the final chapter, everyone gets names, although Yi introduces a key character, Kim Sail’s (the Professor) daughter in the same way he has previously handled specificity; at first she is just “the daughter” and only later does she get a name.

Additionally, there is Yi’s fluid an naturalistic representation of conversation. This is particularly important, because in the third chapter Yi presents some relatively thick ideological arguments, but he does it in a way that does not seem forced or heavy. In fact, the first time I read An Assailant’s Face I sped through the ideology without it hindering, at all, my attempt to see how everything ended.

The title is also a clever one. The theme of the book is the impossibility of “delineating between victims and victimizers,” or maybe even the irrationality of it. By titling the book An Assailants Face and with so many victims and victimizers in the story, Yi is opaque as to who the assailant actually is, and even at the end, when an assailant is named, it is an unexpected name and the power normally implicit in the word “assailant” is stripped from it. I wonder, given that Korea does not have articles in the way that English does, how this subtlety was handled in the original Korean? I hope it is there, because its ambiguity matches up nicely with the issue of how you judge who is guilty of what in a circumstance in which assailants and victims have multiply traded roles.

The story starts with a plot straight from Hwang Suwon’s Descendants of Cain. In the chaos of the war, innocent people are forced to align and re-align themselves as alternating waves of troops overwhelm them. There is, as usual, a trade in betrayal, and the story begins with an amusing parody (if that can be said about a game in which the stakes are life and death) of idealogues and non-idealogues converting, re-converting, and killing the heretics.

In some ways, the start of this novel is a homicical version of the “splitter” scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” in which ideological splits become so ridiculous that they can scarcely be kept track of. A young boy’s brother-in-law disappears in the war (in a welter of betrayed beliefs) and later, when the brother-in-law’s partner in escape gets back to the boy’s house, the boy turns the partner out. The partner is turned out in the politest way possible, but he is nonetheless sent off to his death.

The story then follows the boy as he grows up and joins the southern intelligentsia, but can never entirely leave behind his history and assumed guilt. As an adult, the boy/professor realizes that he passively betrayed his brother-in-law’s friend. Unsure how to deal with this, he assumes guilt, “he willingly exchanged his comfortable position of innocent sufferer for the painful position of guilty participant.”

The professor becomes afraid his brother-in-law actually will return. His return would seal the professor’s guilt for putting out the friend – the one who
should have died, returned; the one that should have been given succor, dead. There is a beautiful passage midway through the story in which the boy/professor attempts to explain what happens and argues that his brother-in-law might have stayed alive longer than expected because, trapped between two ideologies contesting over bodies, both dead and alive, the brother-in-law was like a rabbit. One eagle would have shortly dispatched him, but with two eagles fighting the rabbit had a running chance. The rationalization of a survivor perhaps, and the story is consumed with survivor’s guilt, but a beautiful metaphor for a kind of survival in political ecotones.

The professor keeps his shabby house because it is the only link his brother in law might have to find him, though as noted above he sincerely hopes that moment will never come. The previous bifurcations eventually replay themselves in the professor’s relationship with his daughter and their arguments over reunification – she sees it as a meeting of victims, he sees it as a meeting of aggressors.

This generational disagreement about the basis for reunification contains a quite good (and easy to digest) conversation about possible approaches to the issue. To a western eye, Yi’s narrative stacks the deck against the father when he, for example calls the daughters conclusions “spare and simple” and her father’s argument a “retreat.” However, the general conversation on the distortions and contradictions attendant to reunification is an important one and done as even-handedly as I have ever read.

In the end, the daughter makes a remarkably selfish decision that even the narrator cannot seem to completely endorse, and as the mother notes, reduces her father to a “pitiable assailant.”

An amazing story in which everyone is an assailant and a victim, and very few seem to have the conscious choice of their role, rather they are like marionettes, or shadowy hand fingers on some distant wall, performing roles that seem to come from above, or below, with only the consciousness that they are being pushed by forces that they cannot completely comprehend.