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