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In Search of the Chosŏn People of Lost Korea

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So, not only do we learn that the good judge has grown to resent his wife's absence from home 20 days per month (following her bliss involves bringing her agricultural expertise to a mountain community far away, and forces the judge to do his own dishes). He also recalls a couple that he did divorce out of pity for the wife, once he discovers that the husband was willing to falsely call her an adulterer (and destroy her reputation) to get a divorce.

This Korean Pilgrim's Progress through the stages of discord back to balance involves other couples observed, too. And we meet an idealized couple, in the form of Eun Mi and her family. Sun Hee "envies" Eun Mi because she was also a great singer and dearly loved her husband with the kind of innocence that had not yet seen the harrowing reality of married life. The couple's intimacy was evident, and harmony dwelled in Eun Mi's family.

This harmony, to Wu, a man who must weigh things in the great scales of district justice, his humble zone of local influence, is everything. He reinforces the value of these couplings by showing another couple - a nameless coal miner and school teacher, who are shown as hard-working and loving - whom he returns to a few times. In fact, as he does with Seok Chun and Sun Hee, he interferes, after judicial hours, in their marriage dialectics. For instance, with Seok Chun he will go the extra mile to a river and wade knee-deep to dredge up special sand for Seok to make a machine mold for a project that will advance his career - and maybe make Sun Hee happy and willing to drop the divorce. Later, he tries to talk the coal miner out of apparent incipient alcoholism, as he fears it will unbalance his now beautiful marriage.

Like the culture it comes from, the language in Friend is spare and unadorned and refreshingly clear. Like re-reading Hemingway after f*cking around with Joyce's islands in the stream of consciousness called Ulysses. Nam-Nyong's characters' thoughts, though complex, are not caught up in decorative expositions of wit, charm and intellectuality - because these are forms of excess subjectivity and materiality (celebrations of desire that lead to problems in a society bent on egalitarianism). So, then.

Nam-Nyong achieves this effect in two instances where he has remembrances of love's eruption, leading to proposals and a marriage contract. First, we hear some of Seok's thoughts about his infatuation with Sun Hee as he meanders through the pouring rain:

Seok Chun meandered as though intoxicated and, struggling to keep his balance, proceeded in despair. Suddenly he fell into a ditch, a booby trap set by the neighborhood kids. Seok Chun lifted his head and saw on the path the silhouette of a woman holding an umbrella against the dim dormitory lights.

In the shadow of the umbrella, Seok Chun saw the face of Sun Hee.

Then, in the factory, Seok Chun is so infatuated that he literally tunes into the machine she operates: "Amid the noise of all the running machines, Seok Chun was able to distinguish the sound of the friction press that Sun Hee operated." You can't manufacture this kind of love.

Not long after reading aloud a legalistic thesis on marriage through history to a group of comrades, he is offered tender, private advice by Eun Ok who admires his intellect, and he, in return, her beauty. Early in his courting days with Eun Ok, he, a well-grounded judge, has his emoceanal waters moved by her lunar persuasion:

Eun Ok walked beside Jeong Jin Wu with an arm wrapped tightly around his. She was jubilant, her face gleaming like majestic snowcapped mountains. Simply gazing at Eun Ok's radiant face and lustrous eyes [earlier, Nam-Nyong had described Sun Hee exactly the same way] made Jeong Jin Wu ecstatic. The ice crunched under the feet of the two lovers treading on the snowy path. The brisk morning breeze had become calm, and the sky was clear. The silver clouds receded from the snowcapped mountains into the far distance.

They looked at each other in silence, the kind of silence that had existed before the universe was formed.

While it lasts, love is a many splendored thing indeed, but soon, too soon, it seems, the tide goes out on moony love: "Time had passed. Marriage had not been an enchanting reverie but a harrowing reality."

Nam-Nyong uses naturalistic, almost animistic descriptors at times. Forces of nature express anthropomorphic interest in the lovers described. This, too, seems to be a cultural phenomenon. "Azaleas," the poem by Kim Sowol quoted above, was written in 1919, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. On one level it suggests a broken love, a woman wanting to move on with her life, with the retired lover strewing azaleas at her feet as she goes, rather than tears. This motif is taken up in Friend, as each of the marriages presented is rattled by independent-minded females. On another level, it seems to speak to what David R. McCann calls "the resigned sadness of the Korean people." (It's also worth noting that azaleas contain a dangerous psychotropic rhodotoxin, derived from a plant native to Japan.)

One other aspect of Friend that is cleverly achieved is Nam-Nyong's depiction of children and, consequently, family. The thought that disturbs Judge Jeong Jin Wu most is how broken marriages will affect the children. Nam-Nyong stages these effects by showing how the merged loved of their relationship (the children) are virtually forgotten about as squabbles lead to violent existential outbursts. Thus, one night, Seok Chun and Sun Hee, after a spat, neglect their son: "They had turned off the lights to go to sleep many hours ago, but Ho Nam sat between his parents, between the two rooms, amid the tense atmosphere, completely alone and dejected." (It also pictured "a lost generation" stuck in a DMZ, longing for reunification.)

Children come across as coddled imps with, if all is in balance, an open future. Children are expressive in Friend. One day Seok Chun wandering aimlessly, love-smitten, falls into a "boobytrap" set randomly by such imps. Later, as the judge is walking along, kids run into him, and he almost loses his balance. Even Ho Nam tells Chae Rim, Sun Hee's divorce-supporting cousin, to get lost and throws a bean sandwich at him. This strikes one as humorous - as does a scene with a forklift where a workman with blueprints presumptuously hops on for a ride and is "almost" deposited into a lathe to the female driver's delight.

One last bit Nam-Nyong plays us with is the witty (well, I laughed) depiction of a very serious crime - a felony that a worker commits at a manufacturing facility that you would not conceive in the West:

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Australia. His poetry, commentary, and reviews have appeared in publications in Oceania, Europe and the USA, such as Cordite, Morning Star, Hanging (more...)
 

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