“One Spoon on This Earth” (1999, t. 2013) by Hyun Ki-Young
translated by Jennifer M. Lee
“지상에 숟가락 하나” (1999) by 현기영 (玄基榮)
번역자 제니퍼 M. 리
a book review by Gregory C. Eaves
Father. Hambagigul, the Origin. Pig’s Nose. Home. Great Grandfather. Snow Covered Mt. Halla. King Crows. Political Speeches. Mountain people, Mountain Rioters. Great Leader’s Final Day. Snot. Electric Light. Worms. Hunger. Sea Crab “Kingi.” Drought. Waiting for the Rain. Monster. Flock of Sparrows in Morning Light. Riding the Waves. Water Spirit. Mother’s Bosom. Lullaby. One Ear. Winter. Embers. Naked Woman’s Body. Nude Picture. Sinsok. Pleurisy. Writing. Burnt Skin’s Crush. Sea Anemone. Lily of Purity. My Love Anima. The Need to Blow My Nose. And, finally, Returning Home, when the author finishes his tale and returns to Jeju Island.
Staring back on his youth from the age of 58 in 1999, Hyun Ki-Young doesn’t divide his early life into chapters. He uses brief topic headings that describe short three- or five-page passages. Across the 330-page “One Spoon on This Earth,” there are about 150 of these short passages. Most are very short. The longest one in the book is the final passage, “Returning Home,” which concludes the tale, when he quits Seoul and returns to Jeju Island, and which is a full 10-pages long. Hyun’s tale — less a novel and more of a series of recollections — reads kind of like the Quran: you can open it at any page, read any passage, and gain a kernel of wisdom about some random life topic. For author Hyun, all the topics are about growing up on Jeju Island in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
At times awkwardly innocent, we’re taken through mountain hikes, playing in the ocean and running around with other kids. There are periods of famine, when Hyun describes the arid earth and an aching stomach. There are wind storms, rain storms and monsters on the roof at night. Readers are likely to cringe with disgust when they hear Hyun describe pulling tapeworms out of his anus or when he describes his nose picking; cringe with bashfulness when he writes about seeing a flirty woman in her 30s completely nude; or be moved to tears when the author describes the beheadings, spearings and ear-cutting that the modern South Korean government committed against the people of Jeju.
The English-language writer here translates Hyun’s words as “The Cheju Massacre”. Wikipedia calls it the “Jeju Uprising”. The modern South Korean state, not unsurprisingly, uses the Bowdlerized phrase “The Jeju April 3 Incident.” I call it a grassroots democracy and freedom movement that was protesting a fascist, proto-totalitarian government in Seoul whose ranks were filled with collaborators, carpet baggers, Shanghai-based gangsters, and all-round scoundrels. Whatever words you choose, it ran from April 1948 until May 1949 and about 30,000 people were murdered: villages burnt, mass graves, families fleeing to the hills and similar atrocities.
Author Hyun remembers the families fleeing the troops of the Seoul government, living high on the mountain, living in permanent snow, unable to return to their homes. He remembers the crows eating the dead bodies. He remembers the speared heads. He remembers the rabid young men, dispatched from the newly established South Korean government, behaving just like the Imperial Japanese troops in Nanjing and elsewhere in mainland China. The reward for sliced ears is particularly gruesome.
Hyun lived through this and talks about it around pages 40, 50 and 60. He was 8-years-old when it all ended. The dictators of the South Korean government covered it all up, lied about it, and only with democracy in the late 1990s were the Jeju people allowed to openly mourn their murdered family members. The modern museum-monument to the massacre — called the Jeju April 3 Peace Park — is particularly moving. In 2006, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun visited Jeju and apologized to the island’s citizens for the government’s involvement in the massacre.
Hyun’s book is the second in the Library of Korean Literature series published by the Dalkey Archive and supported by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea). Of the books translated by the LTI Korea, it seems that modern Korean literature divides into three categories. At the Kafka end of the spectrum, there’re the insane, depressing, dark tales that describe how hollow modern South Korean society is, with suicide, death and screaming anger. Authors like Lee Kiho (“At Least We Can Apologize” 2009) and Han Kang (“The Vegetarian” 2007) fall into this category.
In the middle, kind of like 1950s Beat writing or coming-of-age tales, there’re authors like Kim Seungok (“Record of a Journey to Mujin” 1964, “Seoul: 1964, Winter” 1965) and Jang Jung-il (“When Adam Opens His Eyes” 1990).
Then at the grandma and grandpa end of the spectrum, you get a bunch of old people talking about how amazing their life has been, moving from straw and outhouses to glass and steel. They talk about their youth and the wild rollercoaster of a ride that the modern, democratic state of South Korea underwent over the past 71 years, and these tales always include one or two political movements. Author Park Wan-suh (“Who Ate Up All the Shinga?” 1992) is the embodiment of these types of tales.
Hyun Ki-Young is in this latter category. “One Spoon on This Earth” (1999) is a series of about 150 vignettes about growing up in rural Jeju, at a time when the island still had quite a unique and separate identity from peninsular South Korea and from the then-newly-born government in Seoul. As was said about Park Wan-suh, if you want to understand your grandparents, read “One Spoon on This Earth”.
A note about the title: We begin the book with Hyun’s father’s death, at his death bed. We get our first spoon imagery on page 5. Hyun writes about his father that “…he had laid down his spoon once and for all…”
Further on in the tale, we hear about Yi Tokku (이덕구, 李德九), the man who became the default leader of the freedom-minded Jeju citizens when they began to protest the militaristic actions of the new South Korean government, not to mention those of the U.S. military. Author Hyun describes Yi’s death as follows: “…He had his arms stretched out and his head drooped to the side. From one side of his mouth and one of his ears, dripping blood had coagulated. His face looked peaceful as if he were sleeping. The executioner had stuck a spoon in the jacket pocket to mock the dead man, but no one laughed…” It seems there will always be at least one spoon on this earth.
Please also note that during this time, Jeju Island was officially under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea, and it was they who were ultimately responsible for law and order on the island throughout the period.
However, Hyun’s tale moves on beyond the atrocity. He continues to dwell on the things important to a child and teenager: swimming, catching small animals and playing. We travel through his youth with him as our guide.
The English version of “One Spoon on This Earth” was translated in 2013 by Jennifer M. Lee and, as was mentioned, was put out by the Dalkey Archive with support from the LTI Korea. The English writing is simplistic, with awkward idioms from 1950s English that sound odd with a “Korea” image in your mid. There are an unacceptable number of obvious typos: two or three per every 10 pages, throughout the book.
Nonetheless, Hyun collects here a touching series of scenes, vignettes and memories of a bucolic youth. We cannot travel back in time, but we can read well-written memoirs.