Land of Exile – Contemporary Korean Fiction
translated and edited by Marshall R Pihl, Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton
(Sharpe ISBN 1-56324-195-1)
Peace Under Heaven
by Chae Man-Sik, translated by Chun Kyung-Ja
(Sharpe ISBN 1-56324-172-2)
Up to 1945 Korean writers were banned from using their own language by Japanese colonial rulers. They have certainly made up for it since, if Land of Exile is anything to go by. It’s a collection of 12 carefully crafted short stories, written in Korean by authors of the so-called ‘Liberation Generation’. Most of the stories – written between 1948 and 1984 – are here translated into English for the first time.
They provide telling and moving insights into life in a country that has seen more change and turmoil in one century than most experience in a millennium. The legacies of colonial rule, a bloody civil war followed by partition, political repression and galloping modernization have pushed, pulled and dragged ordinary Koreans through a series of dizzying transformations. The result: an overpowering feeling of exile, of alienation which is explored by each of these 12 writers in their own distinctive way. The collection combines poignant social realism with a more internal, at times almost surreal, exploration of feelings and relationships.
Even in the most everyday domestic tales, Korea’s turbulent and traumatic past suddenly pops up in the form of personal memories or general feelings of loss and confusion. A Shared Journey, by Im Ch’oru, describes a meeting between two young men who had shared student years together. But the friends have become estranged since one has had to go into hiding, wanted for subversion by the military government. The other has remained free, eyes wide open, mouth shut, and deeply sad. Their reunion is uneasy – both emotionally and morally – and punctuated by a characteristically tragic event which triggers the shared memory of a past massacre in their hometown. What emerges from the story is a kind of courage in facing reality. It’s there also in the story by Pak Wanso, one of the two women writers featured. A Winter Outing follows the few hours during which a city woman, suddenly realizing that her marriage of many years is a cold and empty sham, goes out into the even colder countryside where she comes to a full realization of her despair. Then, quite unexpectedly, warmth and some sort of meaning come into her life in the shape of an inn-keeper and her mother-in-law, as they open up emotionally to tell her a story from their past. It may be that this is the message of Korea’s writers to Koreans: face the trauma and pain of the past. It can’t be buried in the headlong rush to modernization.
There is some beautifully detailed and sensitive writing in this collection – and some lightness too. In The Man Who Was Left as Nine Pairs of Shoes, writer Yun Heungghil manages to treat the plight of urban squatters with a gentle, even-handed humour.
A sense of humour is the hallmark of one of Korea’s most famous writers, Chae Man-Sik. His classic Peace Under Heaven is also now available in English for the first time. It’s a vigorous black comedy, simultaneously funny and appalling, which has as its protagonist Old Master Yun, a rich, greedy, larger-than-life egotist. Chae Man-Sik is refreshingly prepared to aim his barbed wit not only at the Japanese colonial rulers but at greedy, profiteering Koreans too.
Both these translations will help this exciting body of literature to take its rightful place on the world stage.
by Boukman Eksperyans
(Mango 162-539 927-2 CD)
When Haiti’s military junta got wind of the fact that Boukman Eksperyans were planning to a do a rendition of Kalfou Danjere (Dangerous Crossroads) as their entry for the 1992 Port au Prince Carnival, they did what any despot might do: they banned it. It’s easy to see why. The song – all 10 glorious minutes of it – spirals upwards in its interlocking rhythms and urgent calls and responses. Nine voices warn against killing, cheating, lying. Ancestral spirits and voodoo gods are passing through and their wrath is to be feared. This is a compelling musical sermon and its wild beauty is enough to make anyone’s hair stand on end.
This is dangerous music for a dangerous country and the Creole-speaking Boukman Eksperyans are, for all their rhythmical flows and sweet voices, a serious bunch. Their first album, Nwei Inosan, was banned. Censorship was the least of their problems in making this second album. Armed threats and government surveillance forced several members of the group underground. The ‘experience’ that their name refers to is that of an eighteenth-century slave uprising against the Spanish which was initiated by a voodoo priest called Boukman. Boukman was caught and executed, but not before his name had become a byword for freedom amongst the transplanted African slaves. In Duvalier’s last days, the crowds were singing the words of another Eksperyans’ song Ke M Pa Sote (You Don’t Scare Me).
Although Kalfou Danjere’s 13 songs address the political and social contexts of modern Haiti, the album’s reach is far wider. Its most striking feature has to do with voodoo, the religion which still enjoys a wide popularity amongst Haiti’s poor. Boukman Eksperyans present voodoo as a cultural entity which gives an important spiritual dimension to their music. Dissent and spirituality are expressed in other ways. Theodore Daniel and Mimerose Beaubrun, the band’s chief songwriters, explore links with Jamaican reggae, invoking the rasta as a figure representing independence and spirituality.
Boukman Eksperyans offer an intoxicating sound. Their ra-ra rhythms – salsa and soca inflected with more traditional figures – are capable of filling dance-floors. Indeed this is perhaps a measure of their music’s power. Rooted in a continuity between the past and the present, Kalfou Danjere provides the possibility of an extraordinary way forward.
The Silences of the Palace
directed by Moufida Tlatli
Moufida Tlatli makes her bold debut as a director with this powerful elegy, which examines the place of women in Tunisian society in the years leading up to and just after the struggle for independence in the 1950s. Set mostly in the royal family’s ornamental palace, The Silences of the Palace focuses on Alia, a young girl who has lived all her life there with her servant mother. This is a time when kings and princes could still exercise their ‘rights of the bedchamber’ and avail themselves of any of the female servants of the court. But as Alia grows up she discovers that she is gifted with a sweet singing voice which will potentially free her from this destiny. The film unfolds through a series of flashbacks as an adult Alia returns to her childhood home. The lavish palace is now an empty, echoing husk, haunted by its difficult past which Alia must now re-examine.
In a meticulous fashion, Tlatli documents the daily routines of the women servants. But amongst the women there is a sense of solidarity and resistance. Their laughter and singing in the warm kitchen – their domain – proves unsettling to those who seek to control them. The first part of the film is devoted to this enclosed life. But gradually the world outside the palace walls begins to creep in. Snatches of radio broadcasts and finally the arrival of a young revolutionary teacher in need of shelter point to the political upheavals as Tunisia struggles for independence from the French. But this film is very much about ‘the colonized of the colonized’. There is another revolution needed for the women to be truly free – and Tlatli does not offer any easy resolution.
Noam Chomsky is a troublemaker. He is an irritant in the body politic. He is persistent, meticulous and diligent. His decades-long mission to put on the public record the misdeeds of the US and its client countries is nothing short of heroic. An anarchist, standing outside all affiliations and parties, he carries on the tradition of the famous ‘muckraker’ IF Stone, struggling to combat untruth and to disseminate information.
Chomsky, who is a linguistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a dissident voice of the rampant capitalist world. He does not subscribe to the doctrine that the behaviour of the United States is essentially benign if occasionally bumbling. Chomsky’s view is so at odds with the image that most US citizens have of themselves that he has some explaining to do. In his writing he has set out, in stark clarity, what he believes to be the imperatives of US foreign and domestic policy: the need to secure untrammelled access to raw materials in order to maintain the existing disposition of world wealth. Brute force in support of selfishness, to put it crudely.
It has long been one of Noam Chomsky’s central tenets that parameters of knowledge and information are fixed so that the acceptable limits of debate are controlled. Consent is ‘manufactured’ and opinion massaged through control and manipulation of the media. Intellectuals, the ‘cultural élite’, are essential to this process. They internalize and disseminate the ideological message and patrol the borders of acceptable argument. Chomsky’s genius is in refusing to accept such boundaries and attempting to enlarge the discussion beyond the ditches dug by authorities. For example, concerning the war in Vietnam, he says – truthfully – that the US invaded South Vietnam. Such a statement causes a double-take – surely the US was protecting South Vietnam from aggression? Chomsky patiently disentangles the rhetoric and disinformation from the actual occurrences, pointing out that invading states always claim to be disinterested liberators and that we have no difficulty recognizing aggression when not obscured by the cloud of obfuscation – as with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The control of information is the control of opinion is the control of society.
For more than 30 years Chomsky has been harrying the purveyors of official history. He produces at least one book a year as well as numerous essays, pamphlets and magazine articles. Increasingly his polemical books are knitting together, each becoming a square in a patchwork of a continuing critique of global iniquity. Despite the daunting subjects and a weighty but necessary freight of footnotes and references, he is always crystal clear, never academically convoluted.
In 1988 Serpent’s Tail and Pantheon brought out The Chomsky Reader. This sets extracts from his writings on Vietnam and Cambodia, Latin America and the Middle East beside his best-known essays on ideology, scholarship and freedom. The work is given a context by the inclusion of a long interview with Chomsky in which he – uniquely – talks about his own life and the events which have shaped his remarkable world view.
Chomsky is not a purely negative commentator nor is he disillusioned – this would presume that he had at one time been ‘illusioned’. He proceeds from the presumption that there is a self-interested logic in the way nations and their leaders act, especially those who protest most loudly that they are a special case, that they are uniquely philanthropic.
Never in his writing does he resort to rhetorical flourishes or sentimentality. Cool rationality flecked with occasional black irony is his unwavering style. Such clearheaded sobriety may not be the stuff of stirring barricade speeches but it has the authenticity of a tested truth; not always uplifting but ultimately liberating. ‘There are no magic answers,’ he says, ‘no miraculous methods to overcome the problems we face, just the familiar ones: honest search for understanding, education, organ-ization, action that raises the costs of state violence for its perpetrators or that lays the basis for institutional change – and the kind of commitment that will persist despite the temptations of disillusionment, despite many failures and only limited successes, inspired by the hope of a brighter future.’
We have other – alas too few – writers and thinkers who are prepared in the pursuit of truth to naysay the wrath of authority; Christopher Hitchens in the US and John Pilger in Britain spring to mind. But Chomsky stands alone in the rigour and intricacy of his examination of the workings of power. When he was invited in 1971 by Cambridge University to deliver the inaugural Bertrand Russell Memorial lectures, Chomsky praised Russell as a fellow thinker and activist, in words which apply equally to his own accomplishments, as ‘among those few who have shown, in this century, the splendour that human life can achieve in individual creativeness and the struggle for liberty’.
The Chomsky Reader by Noam Chomsky, edited by James Peck (Pantheon Books US, Serpent’s Tail UK).
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995