Sunwoo Hui: Between Ideology and Humanism 


Like one who keeps afloat in a shipwreck by climbing to the top of a mast that is already crumbling. But from there he has a chance to give a signal leading to his rescue.  
                                                                  -Walter Benjamin  

Everybody longs for fame. The kind of fame we desire, however, is a fame we can enjoy while we are alive, not posthumous fame. Posthumous fame is more difficult to achieve than that gained during one's lifetime. It is hardly ever bestowed upon a person who wins a name through worldly political manoeuvres or clever manipulation of immediate situations; instead it is awarded to a name that survives the hard trial of history and time.  
This applies to Sunwoo Hui without doubt. The Chosun Ilbo newspaper company for which he worked, and a few literary figures, are now publishing the posthumous edition of the Complete Works of Sunwoo Hui. It shows that the love and enthusiasm of people towards the late author is still enormous, although a complete evaluation of his life and literary achievement is yet to be made.  
When Flame was first published, his fame flared up into flame. After Flame, however, his works were criticized for having lost historicity by a few people who were thirsty for hard realism. Furthermore, he was stigmatized as a conservative, unable to present a progressive vision, in the 1970s and the 1980s. He was neither a revolutionary nor an ideologist. He was a writer and a humanist. Although some called him a masked betrayer, he never saw a person as a historical tool; he saw people only as human beings.  
So far the evaluation of his literary achievement has been made on the basis of an unstable historical situation. It is very doubtful whether such an evaluation can be adequate and fair. Haven't we been obsessed to find a consciousness of history and situations, rather than that of a man in his works? In a sense, his works were a kind of literature of the people who were uprooted from their hometown. The novels of Sunwoo Hui came into being and were murdered by the ideological conflicts in this land. He was obliged to be an exile, never able to return to his native place, Pyungbuk Jungju, after he left it; his novels share their fortune with their author and are in danger of losing their identity and being misinterpreted.  
It seems that there is a great deal of historicity in the novels of Sunwoo Hui. The historicity is, however, that of a history that moves mechanically and blindly, unlike the history that is mentioned by some historians like Collingwood and the realists.  
The conflict presented in Flame, the work that brought him to prominence and became the centripetal force of his literary career, takes place between a history of mechanical movement and man, and between ideologies and man. It is undoubtedly true. Ko Hyon, the protagonist of the novel, suffers from the monstrosity of a history that no human being would have ever imagined, that has forced him into a dilemma between "the life of evasion and resignation of his grandfather and the life of engagement and protest of his father," who survived the colonial period and the division of the nation. He, like contemporary Korean intellectuals, wanders not knowing where his life is headed and shows a passive and skeptical attitude towards the fluctuation of anti-human history.  
However, when he reaches an impasse where his nonchalance no longer secures the distance from reality, he struggles with the ideology, the threatening force of history, rolling down towards him with mechanical energy. Hyon has been patient and looked away from reality in hesitation. However, he makes his final choice for a spontaneous and decisive action in spite of his being shot in his shoulder, seeing that his grandfather is shot by Yon-ho and dies a heroic death in a rough valley with his silvery beard shining in the clear sunlight. He feels the flame of passion that belongs uniquely to human beings when he breaks the rusty silence and finally commits himself to a decisive action which lets the "wings of life"flutter. He feels freedom, through the power of the burning passion, convincing himself that he is a human being, not a mechanical product of historical process subordinated to its involuntary movement.  
Actually, all the people in Ko Hyon's family through three generations are righteous people and desperately struggle to free themselves from the halter of the anti-human history that never seems to cease its mechanical movement. In addition to Hyon's father who is killed in the March 1st Independence Protest, there is Hyon's mother who suppresses her instinctual drives by stabbing her thigh with a silver knife and dedicates her whole life to her dead husband. Hyon himself escapes from a foreign legion which is poisoned with physical violence, maltreatment, cruelty, arrogance, servility and falsity, and survives the frozen Chinese continent, desire and hunger. He finally comes back to his hometown. Moreover, he protests against a people's court and dies in the flame. His grandfather dies for human values, something "bigger and more valuable than the lineage branching out without a basis." There are people who expand the range of human existence in the face of a history of mechanical repetition.  
Terrorist, which was published before Flame, yet whose historical background is set in a later period than Flame, is also concerned with human courage struggling against absurd social surroundings. The novel gave a fresh impact to Korean literature which had fallen into the frustration and depression of self-pity. The young men from Seo Buk such as Geol, Kil-ju and Hak-gu in the novel escape from North Korea, detesting the violence that is forced upon them in the name of ideology. However, South Korea is also ridden by violence encouraged by the government's inertia and political venality. Geol is looking for an opportunity to participate in a protest to regain his lost hometown, but he is betrayed and assaulted by a politician who is even indebted to Geol. He is in danger of being killed by political terrorists but is rescued by Kil-ju, the old friend, who is among them. Sunwoo Hui remarkably describes in a speedy language the joys and sorrows that people who were deprived of their hometown underwent, and the sense of futility after violence. Moreover, he presents a brotherly love which endures the chaotic political reality of the South, which is tantamount to the communist terror, and a courageous wish to love.  
Fire is also thematically linked to Flame. The protagonist, Myun, defies his father on reasonable grounds. He sets fire to K Building of the Evil House, of which his father is the director. The building has been a place bewitched by superstitions that destroy people's belief in a better future and is governed by corrupt men who exploit the poor and the ignorant. Myun is lonely since he has become crippled due to war wounds. However, it is his father who has been transformed into an embodiment of evil that plunges him into utter loneliness. He sees his father collecting money by making low-quality tinned food and supplying it to the military. He cannot bear the unethical deeds of his father. The numerous faces of the soldiers who vanished in the battlefield haunt him, and that intensifies his repulsion for his father and his dependence on him. However, he does not let evil be inflicted on him and keeps himself away from despair. He struggles to regain his lost humanity, and his destruction of K Building is the manifestation of that effort.  
The strong will to action and the resolution demonstrated by the characters mentioned above are presented again in novels like Challenge, Father, and Ma Duk Chang, a Man of Virtue in a more concrete fashion. The protagonist of Challenge fights against politicians, the opportunists who confine their lives to fatalism and physiognomy; he asserts human morality.  

Hm! Fate! They would say it also has been already written in the Four Pillars, But it is not human to say such things.  

Father is a comic rendering of a story in which a son rebels against his father, a politician turned philistine, who acts like "a water buffalo." Ma Duk Chang, a Man of Virtue is a touching story of a man whose life can be defined by moral integrity. Lee Jonk-Hyuk, the protagonist of the novel, becomes a Japanese officer in the military office of the Korean Empire, which turns out to be an immature decision. However, after witnessing the terrifying death of a Korean, Ro Dan, and the burning flame of the March 1st Independence Movement, he undergoes serious psychological disturbance and finally resigns his position. Moreover, he becomes an active member of the Movement and gets imprisoned. He serves five years in prison, refusing an opportunity to be released thanks to his previous contribution to the Japanese military, for his own repentance and for the poor suffering in prison; he dies in loneliness. The spirit of nonresistance of Ma Duk Chang, a Man of Virtue, against a Japanese lecturer is a great human resistance against an unjust history.  
Confession is not a success as a novel, but it lays a philosophical foundation to prove that each human being possesses the will power for deliberate and decisive action, and is capable of determining his own fate without resorting to any superhuman power.  
Sunwoo Hui endows his characters with a capability for consciously willed acts to fight against the mechanical movement of history and to preserve human goodness. However, he is skeptical if murder is justified for the sake of abstract ideologies. Ko Hyon in Flame says that he feels freedom after his determined action. However, he cries out that he has killed his old friend Yon-ho just for ideologies, looking back at himself as a person who "would not even lay a finger on another person." This is not so much to stress Yon-ho's innocence as to reveal the senseless brutality of the killing. Such an attitude of Sunwoo Hui reminds us of Shakespeare's implication that Brutus should be charged with moral disintegration although his assassination of Caesar is not regarded as unjust, and of Dostoevsky's unhesitating verdict of guilt on Raskolnikov, who murdered an old pawnbroker, an incarnation of social evil.  
Sunwoo Hui himself was a soldier fighting against the communists who deprived him of his hometown. However, he describes realistically how foolish and appalling killing caused by ideological conflicts and war is, in novels like Restraint, and Revenge, upon which humanism is heavily imposed. In Restraint, revolution and war caused by abstract ideologies are accused of traumatising people, through a synthetic perspective of the tragic and the comic. The protagonist of the novel laughs at the arbitrariness of the war and does his best to alleviate the pain of the children. Revenge, composed of a series of cruel murder scenes, is testimony to the fact that arbitrary killing brings about brutal revenge, and the revenge plunges a lot of people into the pit of destruction. Besides, the author poses a serious question in the novel in the proposition that incapacity for killing, instead of killing, is defeat, by contrasting the protagonist who still has affection toward human being with a mechanical man who is hardened with ideologies. Hence, Sunwoo Hui successfully indicates that hatred among a people in such a chaotic time results in their own disaster, in a novel like Mirror.  
In A Duck and Insignia, the protagonist's nostalgia towards the lost hometown is described in a subtle way and the post-war nihilism is suggested in a sophisticated way. The protagonist, still wearing his military uniform, makes up for the time of his life lost in the war talking with retired terrorists who spend their lives breeding ducks. Chun-bong, who was a rightist terrorist, and Mr. Kim, who was a fervent leftist, establish a community breeding ducks, and they invite the colonel to introduce him to the villagers and the head of the police station. Such a scene evokes the hometown before its ideological pollution.  
Like Ko Hyon in Flame who never wanted to murder although he committed one after long evasion and hesitation, Sunwoo Hui thought not so much about animosity among a people as about the ties of blood and fraternity, and he kept on writing about it. It is a grand scheme of humanity rather than a comedy when the major general, the chief of staff, and the T.I.E. officer get a private out of the barracks and have him sleep with their wives to get them pregnant.  
In A Separate Peace, on which the author himself places the greatest importance, he dramatically describes the tragedy of war that Korean people had to involuntarily undergo, through a touching depiction of fraternal bond. Two young soldiers, one from the South and the other from the North, agree on a separate peace in the snowy mountain, as they realise they are brothers of the same blood. They drop their guns and lose their lives in an attempt to save each other's life while confronting the Chinese Army. The red blood shed on the white snow seems to glorify their deaths.  
The outrageous experiences and disappointments Sunwoo Hui experienced from communism were to lead him to more poignant revelations of reality. With tears, he accused the brutality of communism which made children mechanical human beings and victimised them under the wheel of blind history.  

Whereas they mislead Hong-gil to be a little cold-blooded adult, I may be urging him to go back to his own sensibility beyond necessity. Am I really right to think that a child should be childlike? Being childlike and being childish should be different.   
However, I hate the way that children are deprived of their innocence by the degenerate society, the war, and the mechanism of isms. I cannot bear it at all.   
Before my reason reaches a conclusion, my emotions reject it.  

The tragic reality of the divided nation deprives a good man of his existential life and his freedom of choice. In Gambling Sunwoo Hui indicates that the god of history that Marxists worship is unreasonable and unfair, through the presentation of the tragic reality of the divided nation. The author finds out in the traumatic experience of the uprooted people from his hometown that the country is not managed by people who want to create history, but by those who count on opportunities like gambling which only brings about sorrow and defeat.  
The narrator of the novel outgrows his curiosity about gambling and learns that gambling is not right from his father who lives a sincere life with human dignity. However, after Independence and the consequent communisation of the northern part of Korea, his father was deprived of the land to which his whole life was devoted, and he had to bear losing his uncle and his two sons who went to the South. Being left in the North with the youngest son, he became interested in gambling. His playing hwatoo (Korean card game) with his son cannot be judged from an ethical, moral, or religious perspective. His psychological conflicts, not being able to choose any half of the homeland, finds its expression in gambling. Of course, the result of the game will be obvious, like the head and the tail of a coin, However, unlike in gambling, his tragic dilemma cannot be sorted out by a simple resolution. He cannot decide on either side of the split nation and people torn by ideologies, since his reason is rooted in human dignity and humanism beyond ideologies. This dilemma of his is the very tragedy of our people. What can happen to people who want to improve history based on the unity of humanity and love towards human being when history refuses to move in a reasonable direction and the ideology of Marxists is revealing its contradiction? They will be obliged to stop their work and be placed in the dilemma of losing their own existential life just like the father in Gambling...  

Heads or tails?   
Either would be worth the same to father in loss and gain, so the sorrow would be the same.  

The dilemma of the father was also the dilemma of Sunwoo Hui. He insisted on the need for action to save men from history entrapped in a mechanical movement. However, his disposition, averse to any ideology or hartless struggle, made him base his literature on love towards human beings. Hence, he had ongoing conflicts and has been misunderstood by many people. We have to remember that he was a T.I.E. officer who witnessed slaughter in the battlefield and testified to it, before we criticise him. Considering this fact, the serious conflicts concerned with ideologies and the dark perspective on the future of history that appear in his later works are not accidental. Sunwoo Hui is neither a revolutionary nor a historian. He is just a writer and humanist who wants to attempt to preserve humane, rational values in opposition to the vicious forces of history bent on extinguishing them. To ask him to be more would be to deny him as a writer. The critical evaluation of his literary career and his life should start from the basic premise that he is not a giant who tries to steer the wheels of history towards an abstract ideology, but only a writer and a human being.  

Translated by Chung Soh-young, who teaches at Sogang University.