Friday, January 29, 2010

Il Faut Cultiver Notre Jardin

To return to a question I asked a couple of days ago: I'm about a hundred pages into The Old Garden a novel by Hwang Sok-yong about a middle-aged South Korean who's released after eighteen years in prison for political crimes, only to learn that the woman he loved, and who'd sheltered him while he was on the run from the dictatorial government, died of cancer shortly before his release. Finding it difficult to adjust to the relative freedom of life outside, he returns to the village they lived in before his arrest, to the house she had bought and refurbished when she learned she was dying. Reading her notebooks and letters, he remembers his activist past and broods on the changes that took place in South Korea after the success of the democracy movement and the growing consumerism and commercialization of Korean society.

That is as far as I've read, but The Old Garden is fascinating in its detail and sweep, and I'm looking forward to reading the next 400 pages. Originally published in Korean in 2000 by a distinguished author known for taking on difficult episodes of recent Korean history, such as its involvement in the Vietnam War (Shadow of Arms) and inter-Korean atrocities during the the Korean war (The Guest), The Old Garden was made into a film in 2007, and finally was translated into English in 2009. But the question I want to ask is whether a book like The Old Garden is an escape from reality, or a way of coming to grips with reality.

It's a trick question, of course, as I suggested before, and my answer is: Both. First, it's an escape from reality, because the South Korean society is so different from American society. We were not ruled by a brutal military dictatorship for forty years, nor did we suffer a civil war that devastated much of the country and ended in an armed truce that still leaves the nation divided. Even the high-water mark of political activism in the 1960s (in my lifetime, that is -- there were other peaks in the past) didn't exact quite as great a toll from the opposition movements as resistance to the South Korean dictatorships did: widespread torture, execution, and imprisonment of dissidents. (There were notable exceptions, but they remain exceptions; the bulk of US state violence and terror has been directed at foreigners.) Above all, there is no equivalent in recent American history to the Kwangju massacre of 1980, when the South Korean government responded to a local democracy movement and uprising by blockading the city of Kwangju, and sending in shock troops who slaughtered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of citizens. This event haunts not only The Old Garden but much of recent Korean literature and film.

So, reading a book like The Old Garden gives me a glimpse into the lives of people in a different society, facing different problems from any that I have faced. And there is no reason why I shouldn't read about the lives of people who are different from me. Yet it's not fantasy: Hwang, who was an activist himself and spent some years in exile from Korea, writes from experience and the experience of people he knew about a world that is all too real. (I'm reminded of Bruce Cuming's reminiscence, in Korea's Place in the Sun: a Modern History (W. W. Norton), of Korean students who told him that they were willing to die for democracy: sadly, he remarks, many of them did.

But that's the other side of the answer to my question: there are suggestive and disturbing points of contact between Korean and American experience, which I hope emerge in some of my posts on the past few years' mass protests in Korea. (See most of the posts from June 2008 and the beginning of July 2008, and this and this one from the following year.) As the US government cracks down, ever more harshly, on peaceful protests in the US, more and more Americans will face problems that begin to approach what South Korean dissidents faced. There's a lot to be learned from the Korean experience. For one thing, though it might seem now that the sides were more clearly defined in a dictatorship than in a nominal democracy like the US, the Korean dictatorships had not only secret police and censors, they had a collaborationist press that pushed their side of the story. And now that Korea is officially a democracy, the same corporate media mostly jeer at dissidence in terms very similar to those we encounter in the US: hey, the dictatorship is over, you've got your freedom, so why are you complaining? If you don't like the rascals in power, throw them out by the power of the vote! There's no need to clog up the streets with candlelight vigils in a free society. The derogation of the vigils in the Korean press (which still didn't satisfy President Lee -- he sicced his prosecutors on media which had been insufficiently supportive of his policies) is framed in very similar terms to the derogation of the protestors against the World Trade Organization in 1998, complete with lies and distortions of history.

I'd say, then, that The Old Garden contains lessons for Americans no less than Koreans. For me it is partly an escape from the largely apathetic political movements of today's America, and my own personal lack of involvement, to a time and place where many people put their lives and freedom on the line in the cause of freedom, justice, and democracy. But it also gives me a sense of what it could mean to do such things, and makes me ask myself under what circumstances I might choose to do them too.