|Dreams of The Naked Tree
-Pak Wan-so's focal world
The tree stands
Shedding its leaves
That lonesome boundary of romanticism.
-from "Tree" by Kim Nam-jo
We know from avant-garde theories of criticism that reader
participation is as important as the text itself. In fact, even if a work
is superbly written, it loses its value if the reader does not read it
correctly. Umberto Eco, the Italian scholar of semiotics and writer, emphasizes
the importance of reading by likening the critical reader to an accomplished
musician who breathes life into classical music. Just as the music has
notes, a literary work has structure and many symbols.
If a hurried, unskilled reader fails to find the signs
imbedded in the text and writes a critical piece, it would damage the original
and be incongruent, a ridiculously sad consequence, like a musician who
fails to find the harmony and plays the masterpiece crudely. Professor
Stanley Fish, the worldwide authority in the theory of reader response,
emphasized the importance of the activity and experience of reading by
saying that the encounter between the reader and the text is an experience
of interpretation, but he also said that it takes a mature reader to engage
in critical analysis.
I recently realized how true Professor Fish's pronouncement
was after re-reading Pak Wan-so's first novel, The Naked Tree, after more
than ten years. This work has already become a classic in the history of
Korea's modern literature, and I discovered that my understanding of the
work has undergone a tremendous change since I first read it. I felt a
sense of shame as a humble reader-critic when I read the following passage
from Pak Wan-so:
There is always something true in a rave review or
a harsh criticism, but the piece that contains the interpretation the author
did not intend at all also gives us a chance to think about the method
of reading in a serious manner.
I read the novel again, because I felt that my mind's
eye for interpreting hidden meanings in literary works has brightened,
although my knowledge of criticism is still lacking, my sensitivity has
been dulled, and my eyesight has been dimmed. And also because of Paul
de Man's significant, insightful words that there is truth in fallacy and
that there is fallacy in truth.
My purpose in writing this is an attempt, at a new dimension,
to reveal the theme of The Naked Tree that exists like a halo around the
moon by finding the fundamental codes that I was not able to find ten years
ago. Pak Wan-so said in the postscript of The Naked Tree published in 1976
that Pak Su-gun, a giant in modern Korean arts, was the model of the artist
in the book.
The conflict of this book, on the surface, stems from
the love Kyong-a, a twenty-year old woman, feels for Ock Hui-do, an artist
who is a father figure for her, because their lives are not meant to merge
as one. It plays out against the background of the difficulties of the
Like any good realist novel, an invisible theme develops
underneath the surface in the deep organic relationship of love between
a man and a woman together with the wounds of the war. It is illustrated
very well not only in The Naked Tree, the symbol of a painful love affair-the
main symbol of the novel-but also in the crumbling old Korean house. The
old naked tree, while being drawn by Ock Hui-do, appears to be in the process
of dying, but in reality it is strong and persistently alive as any other
obvious objects in the story.
Then what is the theme of The Naked Tree, which is not
so obvious at first glance? It has to do with a fierce struggle between
the mechanical and the natural forces as well as with the Korean human
values or consciousness derived from the traditional Confucian ethics.
This novel has a precise structure like a web; nothing is free from this
fatalistic conflict. For this reason, the reader feels a high tension when
reading the story. On the stage of The Naked Tree, Kyong-a, poor and unfortunate
artists and sad prostitutes near the American army base survive by doing
crazy things such as painting for the foreign soldiers or selling their
bodies, which seems to fit Darwin's law from a macroscopic and an aesthetic
point of view.
The conflict of the protagonist, Kyong-a, begins from
a sense of self, a fierce sense of human consciousness, that revolts against
war and the dreary human scenes created by war. She despises those who
make a living by painting sensual female portraits from the photos carried
by the American soldiers and hates the women who live on the generosity
of American soldiers. She has mixed feelings of sadness and anger because
of her sense of consciousness set against bleak reality.
Most important, there is a conflict between the instinctive
desires raging inside her and her feelings of human consciousness. It is
only natural that the lively Kyong-a has an impulsive feeling for Hwang
Tae-su. Such a feeling for the other sex is instinctive, which reveals
that human beings are part of nature. It is deeply related to the universal
life God has provided to guarantee the preservation of the species and
also it is the manifestation of life itself. Pak Wan-so introduces us to
Hwang Tae-su when he is at the top of a ladder, which appears to be a symbol
of evolution, brightening the painting space with an electric bulb, a sexual
image. Kyong-a looks up to him with a delicate sense of sexual stimulation.
His Adam's apple, that unique male feature, and his
firm square jaw with its shadow of beard sent sweet vibrations through
me unexpectedly.... I wanted to lean my forehead on that shadowy chin.
The image brought at ickling sensation to my forehead, and a refreshing
pleasure spread throughout my body.
At the same time, Kyong-a realizes that there is another
aspect of self within her, a quite natural human aspect that resists against
animal-like sexual impulses, and because it is precious to her, she engages
in a fierce conflict. Kyong-a demonstrates a human determination struggling
to be free from natural desires and animalistic impulses from the moment
she meets and falls in love with Ock Hui-do. Surrounded by mere sign painters,
he is a man of dignity with an artistic vision, in whose paintings ideals
and reality are transformed into art.
As if responding to Kyong-a's feelings, Ock seems to
sublimate his feelings to fatherly love. Kyong-a is attracted to him, but
she restrains herself with the power of reason. As for Ock Hui-do, whom
Kyong-a is not supposed to love, it is not that he dosn't show any sign
of reciprocation. He is a married man with children, but he is also a human
being and shows a feeling of love which is hard to define.
They share romantic feelings, talking and strolling the
night streets. Although they smile, they realize immediately that they
are sad, poor beings ruled by the law of nature and go to a toy stall to
have a look at an automatic chimpanzee that pours and drinks whisky, a
toy into which they project themselves.
The chimpanzee stood lonely once more, having finished
pleasing people. He is loneliness, his isolation from human beings and
animals alike, brought alump of thick isolation and frustration to my heart.
l looked at Ock Hui-do. He was staring at the chimpanzee
the way he stared at the grey curtain after putting down his brush in the
middle of his work. Suddenly it occurred to me that he was suffering from
the same lon eliness as the chimpanzee. And I couldn't help him at all.
The contentment I had felt evaporated like bubbles. Silently I was pushed
away from him.The chimpanzee, Ock Hui-do, me... I realized in my bones
that all of us suffered our own loneliness which others couldn't share
The chimpanzee pours and drinks by the power of clockwork,
which is likened to naturalistic laws that prompt instinctive sexual love
and even war. They find themselves in that chimpanzee and fall into the
depths of despair. The war is caused by some unconscious power inherent
in the universe ruled by naturalistic laws, and both Kyong-a and Ock are
victims of war. Ock Hui-do, a conscious artist, sees himself in that toy,
and feeling deeply frustrated, he attempts to free himself from the bondage.
The next day he does not come to work at the U. S. commissary.
And then the following day, either. Kyong-a soothes her longing for Ock
Hui-do by meeting Hwang Tae-su. In other words, Kyong-a vacillates between
the two poles of Tae-su and Ock Hui-do, like the structure of the novel
itself. It seems that Kyong-a meets Tae-su, for whom she has no positive
or negative feelings, impulsively, and sublimates her impossible infatuation
for Ock. After Ock Hui-do spends a few hours with Kyong-a for the first
time outside the office sharing smooth wine and embracing her to say he
loves her, he stops coming to work to draw sensual faces for American soldiers.
Perhaps he doesn't like the naturalistic law that lurks in his heart. Like
a dating couple, Kyong-a meets Tae-su in the snowy street to go to Mr.
Ock's house. The street with the falling snow, which is the background
place and the time of this scene, seems to symbolize the color of Kyong-a's
restrained and sublimated love for Ock Hui-do.
She becomes saddened and frustrated with jealousy when
she meets Ock's crane-necked wife and his son, a boy as healthy and refreshing
as a red apple. At the same time she feels an irresistible affection for
them from the bottom of her heart.
Frustrated and anxious, I shifted my sitting position,
biting my lips nervou sly, for I couldn't define my feelings toward her....
It must have been ti me for us to leave.
At last the youngest child flung open the sliding
door and entered. He feltthe apple bag with his hand. He was a friendly-looking
boy. I pulled the b oy gently to my land and gave him an apple.... I embraced
him tightly... When the seeds were revealed, I felt like bursting into
"We should go," I pushed the boy aside roughly and
got to my knees.
After witnessing the family scene at Ock Hui-do house,
Kyong-a finds it hard to endure the conflict between the mind and flesh.
The pendulum begins to move again toward Tae-su. She goes along to Tae-su's
room and allows him to kiss her lips with a violent "throbbing of heart,"
but discovers with sadness that she is not able to give her heart as well.
Similar emotional waves spread out continuously, with
alternating brightness and darkness. Although Kyong-a and Ock Hui-do are
under the bondage of nature in the desolate wartime streets, they struggle
relentlessly to be free from it. Young Kyong-a appears to go with the tide
of sexual impulse that is closely related to the flow of life, but Ock
Hui-do resists fiercely. His attitude comes to a peak when he looks out
the snowy window, in the middle of painting meaningless portraits for money,
after he comes back to work after a bout of cold. This action shows a strong
sense of self, doubting his work and his surroundings. It is also expressed
when he gazes at the chimpanzee at the toy stall in Myong-dong with a self-conscious
eye, the chimpanzee being the main symbol and code of this novel.
In the confusion of the war, orphan-like Kyong-a becomes
confused with sexuality and is surprised to learn that her co-worker Misuk,
who has a "milky fragrance, kind of a combination of wild flowers and newborn
animals," has been proposed to by an American PFC. Kyong-a longs for Ock's
considerate, loving, good yet not stupid eyes, but feels he is as far off
as a star. She feels a rebellious urge to stand on her head, so she meets
Tae-su. After the meeting, she rushes to the toy stall where she always
met Ock, but he is not there. She meets Ock at the stall another day and
requests a more concrete relationship, urging him to stop playing a fantastic,
playing-house role. Ock responses by saying, "Don't you think both you
and I turned into chimpanzees?" Kyong-a answers, "Isn't that a reverse
evolution?" Perhaps because of the war, Kyong-a demands passion from Ock
Hui-do, as a way to overcome something old, sick and dead, with a living
force related to naturalistic desires. Ock Hui-do also wants to become
as lively as Kyong-a. Although he is in a severe conflict, he tries to
become a perfect human being who maintains human values and a vision, free
from an animalistic state. In some sense, a natural man is often dominated
by sexual impulses, controlled by natural laws. It is especially true in
situations after wars.
But a painting created by a human being with power, imagination
and excellent vision without the help of nature is a product of an independent
person, free from nature, signifying perfect human dreams, or rather the
morally perfect human ideal itself. Ock Hui-do paints portraits for American
soldiers at the PX, and they are not portraits of dignity free from naturalistic
laws but corrupted and ugly human faces, the product of reverse evolution,
dubbed "faces of mongrels." He identifies with the clock-work chimpanzee,
for he paints for money at the PX and shares intimate feelings with Kyong-a,
but he attempts to break away from it all. (It is evident that the author
wrote the novel with this intention from the scene in which Kyong-a can't
find the chimpanzee the next time she drops in at the stall.)Ock Hui-do
asks Kyong-a to give him time so that he can be an artist, who can paint
for art sake. "Money" has the same meaning as "prey" in the laws of the
jungle, and that is why when Kyong-a smells American dollars, she speaks
broken English like a puppet or the chimpanzee at the toy stall, as if
controlled by some power not related to human values. For this reason,
Ock Hui-do, after an unhappy conversation with Kyong-a, doesn't come to
the PX, but stays home to work on a painting. Kyong-a believes he would
come to the toy stall in the middle of his work to see her, but when she
goes there, he is nowhere to be seen and the sad chimpanzee is gone, too.
She goes to see Ock at his house, with his pay, and sees the painting he
has been working on, through the sliding door a child has flung open.
The old tree, with neither flowers nor fruit, stood
bleakly against an almost grey space. That was all. The whole space had
a sandy texture, with different shades of black and white, like mosaic.
Neither the sky nor the earth were visible, and the old tree floated like
a monster in the grey confusion.
Sensing from the painting "the poverty of light and colors
that indicates starvation for the joy of life," Kyong-a becomes angry at
Ock's wife, for not acting as a buffer for him, and Kyong-a thinks she
would rather strip in front of his canvas than letting him draw dead wood.
Kyong-a feels that Ock Hui-do drew something which lacked vitality because
of the war that kills life and human vision. She feels saddened because
she can do something for an American soldier's crave for sex, a vital force
for herself also, but she can't do anything for Ock's desires.
As a rebellion against the reality and as an expression
of love for Ock Hui-do, she takes off her clothes at a hotel room where
a good-looking American soldier is staying. But she flees the room at a
moment of crisis when she realizes that although the sexual act on the
pink bed has something to do with the life force, it is also connected
to an act of destruction, the same as in the war.
Kyong-a seems to realize vaguely that the destructive
acts in war are irrational and anti-democratic, yet closely related to
the historic development.
I am not sure if Pak Wan-so used it intentionally or
not, but the fact that Kyong-a is frightened of the old house with part
of roof missing and yet is awed by it and tries to keep it can be seen
as a symbol for the roots of history. Another symbolic proof is that the
main line of the family, Elder Uncle and his son, Min, are saved while
hiding over the ceiling in the main quarters and also the uncle's eldest
son, Jin, survives the army, while Kyong-a's brothers, Hyok and Wook, a
branch of the family tree, fall like leaves and die when the house is bombed.
Another example of the family as an inherent metaphor for history is that
when Kyong-a talks about her family, she considers "I," the individual,
in the context of "us," the group, although she feels sad as an individual
We took it for granted that we should hide my uncle
and Min in our house. We took pity on them because of their ragged appearances,
and my mother was even offended that they hadn't come to us sooner.
The old house, elder uncle and his sons, and the women
survive in the relentless process of history, because they are the trunk
of the clan, while Hyok and Wook are leaves on the branches, a symbol of
youngest son's family. Kyong-a values the old Korean-style house after
a severe confusion in her mind, and she sheds tears of regret because she
had made her brothers hide in the servants' quarters, away from the main
structure. I am not sure whether Kyong-a believes the theory of evolution
that historical development takes place in destruction and death, but she
shows affection for the beautiful sacrifices of the fallen leaves and is
tempted to roll on their pile with an impulse to be with them.
Suddenly I wanted the war to sweep down over us. I
could accept the fact that I had survived my brothers' deaths, but I couldn't
stand it if others lived after I died.
Kyong-a likens the deaths of her brothers to the fallen
gingko leaves, which seem to represent the Darwinian evolution theory,
and thinks their sacrifices are splendid like those yellow leaves. Yet
she resists the war, which is dominated by naturalistic laws. She repeats
that she wants to die and then she wants to live as she looks up at the
gingko tree standing tall into the sky. Even after Kyong-a thinks that
her mother's curse and the memory of the bloody sheets belong to the rotting
leaves, she finds herself being torn by contradictions.
Kyong-a is submerged in a sentimental pool, caused by
ironical hatred for her mother, a living death, who has dull, hazy eyes
and also caused by naturalistic contradictions. She tries to climb out
of it and become a strong, independent person. When she flees the good-looking
American soldier's bed, she leans on a tree and rubs her cheek against
it, the tree that stands strongly in the chilly night air. She decides
not to go to her mother, who has lost the will to live, but to Ock Hui-do's
house, wishing that she could lean on Mrs. Ock's long neck, the woman who
has overcome all the difficulties of excruciating poverty and searches
for a higher world like the Lamark's deer, without losing human dignity
I thought of the woman with the long neck. If only
I could bury my face in that elegant, warm place where her neck flowed
down to meet her shoulders!
Kyong-a sleeps in the only room where Ock lives with his
wife and many children and has a dream in which she is a naked model, except
for the parts buried with flowers, for Ock Hui-do, wishing to be in his
painting. But she feels a sense of disappointment and at the same time
a sense of wonder at Ock stroking a long-necked white porcelain instead
of her own beautiful body in the dark.
What is the ideal object Ock tries to put on his canvas?
It is a portrait of a woman who doesn't lose elegance and tells about herself
with a dignified silence, Ock's wife, like a white porcelain in the midst
of difficulties of everlasting time. Kyong-a, in her dream, sees that the
porcelain takes on a lively color, as if blood had started circulating,
which seems to indicate such an ideal object.
I spotted Ock, crouching in one corner of the dark
room. Kneeling in a pious posture, he was caressing something. It was a
white porcelain wine bottle with a long neck.
Staying at his house overnight, Kyong-a discovers that
Ock, the artist, looks for a modest, dignified Korean ideal rather than
a beautiful flower-like naked body as his object. She returns home and
realizes the beauty of her old house. It might be because this house, where
she lived with her father, mother and her brothers, Wook and Hyok, has
a similar code and symbol as Ock's porcelain.
Right after her stay at Ock's place where she experienced
the atmosphere of creation with her own body, her mother, who had been
leading an empty life, dies of pneumonia. After the funeral, Kyong-a marries
Tae-su, whom she doesn't love with passion but doesn't dislike, either.
Before her marriage, she meets Ock Hui-do, who comes back to work at the
PX, and realizes that he loves her in his heart but being a moral man,
he loves his family no less.
Ock can paint in the dreary wartime without losing hope
because he has met a lively woman like Kyong-a. Ock describes Kyong-a as
a "mirage" during a sad confrontation with Tae-su, which resembles a love
triangle, and it proves that she was, indeed, the vital force behind his
artistic endeavor. The realistic Tae-su says that a mirage is merely vapor,
but as water symbolizes the life force, the mirage of Kyong-a might be
a symbol of hope, for hope is closely related with the life force.
But more important, Ock Hui-do doesn't lose his human
dignity, restraining the life force like The Naked Tree. Although there
is room for doubt, he provides fatherly love for Kyong-a who has lost her
father, and when the time comes, he lets her leave as a mature woman. It
is not something immoral or shameful but fortunate that he finds a refreshing
vitality from Kyong-a in the middle of the dreary scenery, a mirage in
the desert, both as a human being and as an artist, because he is comforted
by her and doesn't lose faith in human life.
Even if Ock Hui-do harbors sexual feelings for Kyong-a,
it is not as a family man but as an artist. In other words, it was to preserve
and depict a portrait of a human being, not only as an individual surrendering
to the historical force that continues endlessly at the level of the universe
but also as someone who continues life in hope and with vision in a desert-like
wartime to overcome hardships, like the sun coming out again from the darkness.
When Kyong-a first sees Ock's tree in the dark room on the other side of
the sliding door, it strikes her merely as an old tree, but after some
time the bare tree in the backyard of her old house looks like that naked
tree, a transformation into a symbol of the clan's main house. Kyong-a
feels sad about the bare gingko tree because the historic past is alive
in the present, even if we don't use Walter Benjamin's theory. Benjamin
considers the past as something destroyed and broken yet he values its
memories and wreckage, for the severance with history means the severance
with the organic life. Kyong-a and Tae-su lead a happy married life in
a newly built house. On one autumn day, they look at the yellow gingko
leaves and feel like going to see Ock Hui-do's posthumous art show. It
is not only because they are drawn by Ock Hui-do, who lived like the naked
tree of his own work, but also because they might have wanted to see the
life that they are leading with dignity in the context of desolate history,
or rather to see a portrait of human beings.
Truly, Ock Hui-do, the artist, was a being like the naked
tree under the cold winter sky. Also he was like the splendid golden leaves
that fall from the tree, which eventually allow the other naked trees to
grow. Kyong-a wishes to roll on the pile of yellow gingko leaves from the
naked tree, because of the universal drawing power derived from the theory
of evolution, and also because she wants to share Ock's pain, the artist
she loved so much when she was young. Perhaps she regrets that she inflicted
pain on him, because at that point of her life she found life very hard.
The naked tree trembling in the wind during the winter
kimchi season, a naked tree that had just shed its last leaf. The spring
was far, far away,but you could see the tree's feverish yearning for it,
a yearning that could bring tears to people who gazed upon it.... The ginkgo
trees in the palace grounds were even more magnificent than ours at home.
We sat on a bench under the gingko and surrendered ourselves to golden
Natural forces bring destructive deaths, but ironically
they also conceive new life. For this reason, we should accept natural
phenomena, even though we feel sad. Yet, although we are nature's product,
we are human beings. That is why we love a little giant standing tall with
dignity, guarding human values and fighting against natural forces. We
know that human history and cultures have been created and carried on by
A mature reader can't help but understand and have a
special affection for the protagonists-Ock Hui-do, and Kyong-a, who breathes
life into the artist from a parallel line-in Pak Wan-so's masterpiece,
The Naked Tree. It has an excellent structure in which the shades of life
and death are arranged in a pile of mosaics, crossing each other. If this
critic, still an unskilled reader, says that the naked tree in Ock's famous
painting can't be a work of art if there are no women under it, it wouldn't
be an overstatement. It is because the tree of art, like a winter tree,
grows not in paradise but in harmony with the real human world no matter
how harsh the soil is.
Translated by Yu Young-nan.