Memory of a People : One Aspect of Hwang Sun-won 


In Greek mythology, the Goddess of memory is highly esteemed as the mother of the arts. The nine Muses are the offspring of the Goddess of Memory and Zeus. It goes without saying that the stories people enjoy are also the offspring of Memory. The epics of a people reflect their experiences, in other words, their memory. One of the characteristics that we can attribute to Hwang Sun-won, who contributed greatly to Korean fiction-specifically to the maturation and refinement of the short story-is that he was an exceptional conveyer of Korean memory. In his short stories, Korean experiences from ages ago are studded like jewels in a simple, summarized form.  

The following might sound like a clumsy, moral assertion, but all good old stories are not simply entertainment, but are also useful, directly or indirectly. By "useful," I mean they teach a lesson, provide practical advice or summarize wisdom in the form of a maxim or adage. Furthermore, before the development and availability of printing, old stories were the first interpretation of the world for the young. Hwang's short story, "The Child in a Mountain Village," is a good example. For the child living on an isolated mountain, whose most exciting snack was acorns that had been strung together and buried under the snow on a snowy night, the old story recounted by his grandmother combined fun and learning all rolled up into one. It was also a philosophical, practical tale. The story goes like this: When a smart and hard-working school boy in his teens climbs Fox Hill, a girl as pretty as a flower appears and kisses him, holding his ears. She has a colorful gem in her mouth and rolls it back and forth into the boy's mouth. This happens every day, and the boy grows thin. The suspicious school teacher follows the boy, witnesses the scene and advises him to swallow the gem. After the boy manages to swallow it, the girl as pretty as a flower is nowhere to be seen and instead a big vixen lies there dead.  

This legend of Fox Hill encourages the listener to subconsciously admire beautiful women, but at the same time reveals the heartless motive of a seducer. Unlike many other stories of this kind, involving an enchantingly beautiful woman but leading to a disastrous ending, this particular story comes to a happy ending. It does not merely warn that one should be careful of devious women; it suggests that in life appearances and reality are bound to differ. This legend, which says that enchantment covers a ruinous trap, is similar in type to the seduction by the Sirens in the Odyssey, although it is not so similar in texture and structure. The Sirens claim that those who listen to their song will become wiser, for they know all about the warfare between the Greeks and the Trojans on the Trojan plain as well as what will happen to them in the rich land. Just as Odysseus and his shipmates avert a crisis by plugging the ears of the crew members and tying up Odysseus, the student in Hwang's story avoids danger by swallowing the gem.  

The boy, having heard the legend, replays the protagonist's overcoming of crisis in his dream. In other words, the legend has a practical, educational effect. Another of Grandmother's stories, the tale of Pan-su Grandfather, who dares to enter a tigers' den to rescue a child, is a legend that teaches the value of strength, courage and wits as necessary survival skills. By defeating the tigers, Pan-su Grandfather becomes worthy of being a father. While the father of the mountain boy is making a living selling hand-woven straw shoes in the market, the grandmother is in charge of the boy's education. She has acquired the memories of the mountain village and hands them on to the boy. The boy falls asleep waiting for his absent father and dreams that it is he who goes into the tigers' den to rescue his father. This shows the internalization process of the survival values inherent in the legend. In this way, "The Boy in the Mountain Village" sums up the true nature of the story, as well as its function. It is a story but at the same time an interpretation of a story.  

The characteristics of Hwang's writing-his simple and refined style, tight structure and warmth-are unusual in traditional Korean prose literature. Nevertheless, his work strikes us as something that stands tall, right in the middle of Korean tradition, far removed from foreign elements. It is partly because he cares about the refinement of the native tongue (a must for writers, but many have neglected this aspect), but also because he is a conveyer and a user of authentic old stories. His techniques are pregnant with modern sensibilities, but his materials are drawn from the main stream of folk tales. This becomes evident when we look at the true nature of the traditional stories he frequently includes in his works. He collects such stories diligently, and he observes and describes people and their behavior through the framework of well-known tales. Such stories range from short legends to folk remedies and practical adages. It is not accidental that his short stories, such as "The Dog in the Village over the Hill" and "The Picture of Wolves," take the format of a narrator telling a story he heard when he was a junior high school student.  

The Dog in the Village over the Hill, a collection of stories which Hwang Sun-won wrote after the liberation of Korea in 1945, was published in 1948. Among the author's short story collections, this book reflects the social atmosphere of that time most vividly. For this reason, the stories in this book are supposed to be far removed from traditional tales. Still, old sayings and old stories are used very effectively. As an example, let us take a look at "Toad," a story concerning the housing plight of war refugees. The story begins with an adage.  

Other people's deaths are less important than my cold-this adage occurred to Hyun-se as he walked toward Namdaemun Gate.  

The destitute refugee life is thus summarized, and one of the male characters is characterized by means of old sayings and folk tales about the toda-this villain tricks an old friend by enlisting him to pretend he is someone who wants to buy a house in an attempt to drive the current tenant away, but in the end, the friend doesn't get the vacated room as he was promised.  

He's like a toad, like a toad. A toad with scabies that crawls out from under the rock under the house in the rainy season... They say people don't die of scabies, although they might die of lacquer poisoning. It was lucky that the wife got better. Perhaps it was not lacquer poisoning after all, or was it thanks to egg white? But what do I tell her about this room?... A toad, a toad with scabies, his mouth gulps down pulgogi, soju and garlic instead of flies...The odor from his mouth was hard to put up with by someone whose stomach was empty. Suddenly an old tale he had heard from grownups when he was small flashed through his head. A toad puffed poisonous gas into the face of a serpent who had come to snatch a girl away, the girl who had raised the toad. The pillar-heavy serpent in the end fell from the ceiling with a thud, but the toad also died of exhaustion. The venom of the toad is such. It was no wonder I was driven away by the toad's breath. Aren't I no more than a thread-thin serpent on the verge of dying, anyway?...And that old woman was but a sick serpent, too.  

The image of the toad was imposed not only on the old friend whose nickname had been "toad," but also on Elder Kim, who politely urged the tenant to leave, holding the Bible in his hand. This provides an authentic detail of the prevalent atmosphere of those days when swindles were rampant and, at the same time, connects the short story with traditional memory. In addition, it provides a firm footing for characterization.  

Here Hyun-se remembered Tu-gap's expression "leech," and how he said one should pluck it off decisively, but he didn't have the energy to stand and talk any longer, so he just walked on.  

The images of the toad, serpent and leech aid characterization and simultaneously ensure that the reality in the story is unquestionably native. The character in the story relies on old sayings as the standard for behavior. We witness an example of adages and maxims being employed as a strategy for life.  

"The House" deals with the downfall of a landed farming family, resulting from the grain conscription policy toward the end of He Japanese occupation combined with gambling. It shows a contrast between the unscrupulous landlord, Min Chang-ho, and Cho Pil-su, a modern landlord who conceals his avarice for land behind his smile. An anecdote abut gambling is used in the same way as the anecdote in "Toad."  

Among them, Mr. Song told the story of a gambler he had met before, the one who had severed his thumb vowing that he would never hold a card with it, but took up the cards again even before the wound was completely healed and said that he did a foolish thing because he couldn't use this thumb for the important function, and besides it hurt badly. Thus saying, Mr. Song then commended Mak-dong's father.  

In "Bulls," a story with unusual material in that it has to do with the protest of angry bulls(farmers), we find the story of Straw Bag and of a bull. It should be noted that they are widespread folk tales found all over Korea, although the details might differ.  

When Straw Bag was born, his father put him up in a straw bag far keeping seeds and hung it on the wall, because it was believed that the baby would grow quickly if he was kept there. But the new-born was so strong that his kicking and flinging about unhooked the bag. The baby survived, because luckily the bag didn't land upside down, but he fell on his bottom with such force that his neck and back collapsed and stayed that way. That is why he still has such a shout neck and short back.  

Then Rock thought of what the adults had said about how it was not frightening in perilous situations as long as one was accompanied by a bull, so he tried to relax, reminding himself that what they were taking was a bull, albeit a calf. But he also remembered another story his village elders talked about, a story they said had happened somewhere a few years back. A boy went out to feed a bull in the evening, but after a while the bull came back, with his horns caked with blood. The boy's family was upset, believing that the boy had been attacked and killed by the bull. But shortly, the boy returned. Far from having been attacked, not a finger was hurt.According to the boy, he had been standing idly while the bull grazed. Suddenly the bull threw itself over the boy, and he thought he was going to be trampled to death. When he came to, however, he realized that a tiger, whom the boy had not seen coming, was leaping over the bull. Every time the tiger leapt, the bull jumped to avoid him, but he made sure that he didn't kick the boy by accident. The boy didn't know what had happened when the bull ran away, but he discovered a dead tiger, his belly split open.  

It order to avoid too many quotations, let me list the folk tales in some of Hwang's stories:"During the Span One Might Smoke a Cigarette," has a tiger tale told by a hunter and a story of a slave ship;with a power struggle over the management of a brewery abandoned by a Japanese owner after liberation, in which a tale of a Japanese apricot tree, although not a folk tale, is skillfully incorporated.  

The short story collection, Acrobats, is a compilation of Hwang's stories after the Korean War(1950-1953). Among them, "A Wood Printing Printed on the Dark" contains a hunting tale of bears and pheasants and "Hat," a rare humorous work, contains a recollection of a tale about an old mouse who sits with the resident's official hat.  

As already mentioned, the use of old sayings and folk tales contributes to effective characterization or plausible details, and at the same time, it connects Hwang's stories to Korean tradition, allowing him a firm status as a conveyer of the Korean memory. His short stories, in this way, strike a harmonious balance between tradition and his westernized style (refined flow and compact structure). His strong attachment to folk tales enabled him to produce such a masterpiece as "Lost People" in his later years by reconstructing old stories into classical accomplishments.  

"The Dog in the Village over the Hill" and "The Picture of Wolves" share the same device:the narrator retells a story he heard when he was a junior high school boy. The former illustrates a hard-working, rootless life, and its theme deals with the reverence for life, as can be seen in the reluctance to kill a pregnant animal. The latter is a "tableau" of sorts-a pack of wolves lose their heads and take revenge after seeing blood. This is depicted through a recollection from a story heard in childhood. These two stories have another aspect in common; they basically allude to human behavior, although they are ostensibly about animals.  

In addition, "The Picture of Wolves" and "The Child in a Mountain Village" share the same structural and circumstantial devices, although the latter is much simpler. "The Picture of Wolves" has a junior high school boy who plays the harmonica, instead of a poor mountain boy whose sole snack is acorns buried deep in the snow. Both of them are waiting to grow up. In the case of the mountain boy, the grandmother tells him old stories containing an interpretation of the world. Her stories are either village legends or stories handed down from not-so-long ago. On the other hand, the storyteller in the other story is an older man(a friend's uncle) who has lived in far-off places, and his stories are related as his own true experiences. Although these differences justify the individuality of the two separate stories, they have the same form in a broad sense, for they share the structure of an initiation story.  

In "The Picture of Wolves," two boys, at the threshold of their teenage years, have a strong affection for each other, a typical bond before they get to know the opposite sex. They talk about their dreams and play the harmonica in a rented room, where there is a picture of the sea hung on the wall. What provides them with a window through which to peek out into the world is Man-su's uncle. In a word, he represents a man of experience. He tells his experiences to the "inexperienced" boys. The "wolves" can be interpreted as a symbol of the world of experience.  
When one reads the story literally, the revenge of the wolves seems to indicate their irresistible inclination to violence that blindly drives them to the bloody end once they have seen blood, as well as the horror of it all.  
The Mongol, somewhat naive and kindhearted, and the Japanese soldier, impatient and proud, may represent generosity and a call for violence, respectively. There might be some readers who read the end of militarism into the traceless death of the Japanese soldier by the wolves. But the important point is that the wolves' world is an answer to the questions of the boyhood "dreams, passion and energy" provided by a man of experience. The purity of the far horizon of the sea and sea gulls is only a dream and a symbol of longing in the world of experience. What is waiting for the boys over the horizon is the real world permeated with the smell of blood. The narration- "Then among the stories that Man-su's uncle told us, the story about the other side of Hung-anryong Peak made us open our door and make a window in our wall to lead us to a new, wider world"-indicates that the wolves were not selected at random.  
We have noticed that the stories in "The Child in a Mountain Village" all come to a peaceful ending, because that contributes to the internalization of survival values, but exempts the child from excessive tension. The world of experience in "The Picture of Wolves" is crueler and more terrifying. It might have to do with the older protagonists of the story.  
Yet, whatever the reality of the world of experience, the author constantly emphasizes a reverence for life and a respect for the dignity of life. The stories, "The Dog in the Village over the Hill," "The Picture of Wolves," "Life." "Wood Printing Printed on the Dark," and "Merry Christmas," revolve around the sense of the reverence for life. It goes without saying that this results in readers feeling a sense of compassionate warmth as they read Hwang's stories. His works include many children, because their innocence and their complete defenselessness most adequately invoke a sense of the dignity of life.  

Hwang Sun-won's stories often relate his own experiences without much fictionalization, as can be seen in "Children," "Merry Christmas" and "The Wood Printing Printed on the Dark." Such stories have a danger of falling into artless anecdotes, but Hwang manages to wrap up a tidy package. Among them, "Acrobats" is the most moving, well-crafted short story. It deals with refugee life during the war, specifically the difficulty in living in a rented room in other people's houses. The plight of the refugees as they move south from Taegu to Pusan seems to touch the heart of the reader, especially because there is little fictional transformation. Never mind the life of a refugee, the tyranny of the landlord over the tenant is understandable to anyone who had rented a room. When such tyranny touches the tenant's children, his pain and fury reaches a peak. The characters, including the narrator's family, pass by quickly, but the story has an uncommon feel of reality and speed, thanks to the tyranny of the owner's family and the anguish and fury stimulated by such treatment. It is a dark story, but overcomes the rhythm of despair, because there is palpable hope for peace and happiness.  

Tong-a, the clown, sings "Sorento." Yes, show off your talents as you wish. I don't know whether after today you will look back at these acrobatics with sorrow or with laughter. So you don't need to know whether your mother and father laughed or cried at your acrobatics. I just wish, my little clown, that when you have a troupe of your own, you won't have the same stage and repeat the same acrobatics with your own little clowns.  

The ardent hope that he has for the children comes directly from the reverence for the dignity of life that flows through the entire collection of the same title; to Hwang, children always represent the possibility of hope. He seems to imply that as long as there is a child's innocence in the world, we can hold onto hope. Innocent children, the refusal to despair and a sense of the reverence for life always cast a soft light over Hwang's literature. Although the light is not bright, it is the source of persistent resistance against the power of darkness.  

To those who experienced the Korean War, a rereading of "Acrobats" is an especially moving experience. To prevent it from degenerating into a pool of sentimentality, the author adds heartfelt hope in the middle of the self-mocking, comic speech. That hope remains to be fulfilled, because we still have not managed to take ourselves out of the terror of war. As long as we are still there, the miserable, angry story of the "Acrobats" is not a story of the past, nor a story about other people. It is story about ourselves today. The appeal of the story is indeed powerful.  

One last thing, there are many tales concerning animals in Hwang's works: the toad, the serpent, the bull, the tiger, the wolf, the dog, the cat, the kite and the bear. Some of Hwang's titles include "The Pig Line," "The Festival of Chickens," "Mantis," "Wild Goose," "Mule," "Crane," "Conch," and "Butterfly"-they sound like the animals in a zoo from our poverty-stricken days. All these animals connote something from the world of humans. We have already seen that in "Toad," one character defines another character by means of traditional associations with the toad. We have also seen that the worlds depicted in "The Dog in the Village over the Hill" and "The Picture of Wolves" correspond basically to the human world. It might be thanks to the fact that the author is conversant with traditional tales. As we all know, in traditional fortune telling by face reading and fate interpretation, the analogy of animals is used to tell what kind of person one is, how well one would get along with others and how fortunate of unfortunate one will be. The animal world is reflected in "The Picture of Wolves" and "The Terrifying Laugh" as a relentless world of struggle. But it seems clear that Hwang didn't see the human world as an extension of the animal world ruled by the fierce struggle for the survival of the fittest and the right of the strongest. The author's reverence for life is open to the animal world. But one should not jump to conclusions. If it is possible, I would like to concentrate on the meaning of animals in Hwang's work sometime in the future.  

Translated by Yu Young-nan.