‘My mistake was to assume that people would understand the truth from facts alone. But it turns out that facts are treacherous things that can be twisted to distort the truth.’ That’s Hwang Sok-Yong reflecting on the events – an (officially) unsanctioned trip to North Korea in 1989 – that would eventually lead, following a four-year voluntary exile, to his spending five years in a South Korean prison during the mid-1990s. For a celebrated novelist and prominent activist, who spent the 1970s launching cultural activist groups and penning declarations and manifestos for various democracy movements, it’s a statement that seems both oddly naive and hard to swallow.
Hwang is now seventy-eight; The Prisoner, originally published in two volumes in Korean in 2017, is a memoir chronicling his life and work. His truth. Although it is his life experiences that fuel the majority of his fiction too. It lends them another kind of truth, or authenticity. Hwang is best known for Jang Gilsan, an epic bandit saga (concealing a critique of South Korea’s dictatorship) that was serialised in a national newspaper between 1974 and 1984; Mr Han’s Chronicle (1970) is about a family separated by the Korean War (Hwang’s parents migrated from Pyongyang – which Hwang refers to as ‘home’ from the start of his memoir – to Seoul, under the pretence of travelling for a picnic, shortly before its onset, leaving their extended family behind), The Shadow of Arms (1985) is based on his experiences of the Vietnam War, while The Guest (2002), about a massacre in North Korea wrongly attributed to the Americans, is partly drawn from the same (Hwang credits his experiences as a conscripted soldier in Vietnam with revealing to him the ‘true meaning’ of the Korean War).
Hwang’s life is remarkably rich, governed by the legacies and actualities of Japanese colonialism (he was born under Japanese rule in Manchuria and moved to Pyongyang when he was two), civil war, national division, the Vietnam War, cultural and social activism, Korea’s popular uprisings of the 1960s and 1980s, the effect of the Gwangju Uprising and its lethal repression in catalysing his activism, his campaigning for a united Korea, exile, prostitutes, marriages, divorces, estranged children, sometimes brutal prison-time, alongside literary celebrity in his homeland and, to a lesser degree, abroad. It is something of a soap opera in and of itself. As well as offering a lens through which to experience the complexity of modern Korean history. Indeed, of his own work, Hwang writes that he felt ‘compelled to craft a deliberately Korean narrative that would depict reality from our point of view’. That in the context of living through a time when the Korean narrative was dictated by colonial powers (principally Japan and the US), military dictators and stubborn ideologies. But while the title of this work clearly references the various prisons of the mind and body within which Hwang (and by implication Korea – there’s not a little ego on display here) was incarcerated, what really drives this narrative is Hwang’s struggle to grasp the slippery essence of truth. Assuming there is such a thing.
Recalling his deployment with the Republic of Korea Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, where, working alongside US forces, his tasks included cleaning up the remains of various massacres, Hwang confesses that he did not think, at the time, that young Viet Cong ‘were Asian like me’. ‘I did not feel pity for them. All they [the corpses of dead guerrillas] were to me were strangely shaped objects’. Only later did he come to realise that the derogatory term ‘gook’ derived from Korean (Hanguk for Korea or miguk for America). And that an undercurrent of the Vietnam War involved a fellow Asian nation’s resistance to the imposition of foreign ideologies and neocolonial rule.
While there are periods of his life when his campaigning and organising cultural movements led to a pause in Hwang’s career as a writer, the end goal of The Prisoner is, to a degree, to articulate Hwang’s fundamental belief that art and life should be one. A break, he claims, from the traditional notion of the ascetic classical scholar who removes themselves from society in order to achieve a clarity of vision. Yet even by his own account, his engagement with everyday reality throughout his life was somewhat patchy.
As a youth, he did decide ‘to leave the secular world’ and become a Buddhist monk. He achieves a certain clarity of vision during the course of his 18 hunger strikes while imprisoned (the memoir as a whole is structured in alternating chapters recalling his often-brutal life in prison and his personal biography). And there are wives and children from whom he was estranged or absent – at one point he describes telling his third wife that he wanted her to earn money so he could do the, by implication, important work of joining the labour movement. He left and returned to his patiently supportive mother’s home with little explanation or notice when he felt like it, stole from her and missed the chance to see her in the runup to her death. On the one hand it’s notable that women are the principal collateral damage of his campaigns for democracy and social justice; on the other hand, it’s instructive to hear him describe the way in which a full commitment to art or activism and to life is a struggle in itself. Although there’s a suspicion throughout that Hwang’s admission of his ‘bad’ qualities functions strategically to push the idea that what he writes is the truth, rather than functioning as a genuine expression of guilt or regret.
Nevertheless, all of this (and a very good translation of the original Korean) contributes towards a fascinating account of a life lived for art and campaigns for freedom and justice. Of an individual artist’s attempt to be a useful part of society, and the conflicts and contradictions present therein. And while Hwang is at the stage of looking at that in a narrative of the past, his concerns remain just as active and urgent in the world today.
The Prisoner by Hwang Sok-Yong, translated by Anton Hur and Sora Kim Russell, Verso, £30 (hardcover)
From the Autumn 2021 issue of ArtReview Asia