Monday, October 31, 2011
Kim tells of bleakness in 'Heuksan'
Kim Hoon is a celebrated writer, whose new books are eagerly anticipated and once they are out, book signings are immediately scheduled.
Much is the same with his new book “Heuksan,” (Black Mountain) which deals with the religious persecution of Catholics in 1801.
Kim, who has dealt with significant historical events in his previous books, offers yet another mix of the real and the fictional from early 19th century Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
The novel starts after the persecution has begun and respective sentences have been handed down to members of the literati family of the Jeong brothers for their beliefs or “dalliance” in Catholicism.
The names of the ruling elite that appear as protagonists are real. The Jeong brothers — Yak-hyeon, Yak-jeon, Yak-jong and Yak-yong — and Hwang Sa-young, the son-in-law of the eldest Jeong.
Fictional are several low-class protagonists — a groom, a servant, a low-class merchant, a low-level clerical worker and a former court lady.
And together, these figures’ lives intertwine to tell a sorrowful tale of the people who lived, and died for their embrace of Catholicism.
The writer tells the story mainly through the voice of Yak-jeon, who goes into exile on “Black Mountain Island.” It’s a no man’s land that he arrives at, at the expense of his younger brother Yak-jong’s death. Another younger brother Yak-yong’s life is saved and he also goes into exile.
A life saved, but utterly devoid of integrity.
“It was several months ago that Jeong Yak-jong, the younger brother died smiling while his head was decapitated, but it feels so far away as if it took place in another life. Yet the further it seems, the clearer it becomes in my mind. Is it a betrayal of Catholicism to preserve my life on this Earth by shedding once-scintillating thoughts aside and pulling down others? How is it that life is only possible through betrayal? As the dead Yak-jong said, was there no betrayal (in what I did) because there was no belief to begin with? Is that it? Or isn’t that what it is?” the protagonist thinks to himself as he watches the birds and the fishes on Black Mountain Island.
The other central figure is Hwang Sa-young, the son-in-law to the eldest Jeong, who fully embraces Catholicism. A prodigy, he passes the national exam to become a civil servant at 16, but remains outside the court.
His marriage into the Jeong family introduces him to Catholicism, which he embodies. He is found out by officials later — with his famous secret silk document that asks the Chinese dynasty at that time to intervene to stop religious persecution. Hwang is decapitated and torn to pieces on his death.
The low-class figures in the book are all the more gripping for the simplicity of their belief.
The groom, who by chance becomes the deliveryman for Hwang Sa-young and the Catholics in China, and Ari, a servant girl who came to live, almost by accident, at a Catholic house after fleeing her employers who raped her.
There is a poignancy in the servant girl’s plight. She never really got to saw her servant mother who was perpetually lent out to other aristocrat families to breast-feed their babies.
When the servant girl named Ari is interrogated and asked to confess her Catholic beliefs that the court officials likened to “betrayal” of her parents and her King, she said “I would not know about that but I know that the messages were simple and clear, as if they were within my heart to begin with.” She is also put to death.
Kim has touched on important historical incidents before, with wild success.
His 2001 novel “Sword,” which dealt with the struggles of Admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598), was a million seller. It drew rare attention when the late former President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) favorably mentioned it.
His “Mt. Namsan Fortress,” published in 2007, was also about the 47 days that King Injo (1595-1649) spent in isolation seeking refuge at the fortress during an invasion.
Thus, the “Heuksan” runs along that vein. Historical facts appear, although not too specifically, on almost every page and old Korean words appear to impede the reader initially. Different readers may construe differently upon their inclination.
But with each of the stories, Kim addresses the suffering, the sadness and the pain of people who lived with the consequences of their choices, whether that choice be of their own volition or are the sum of happenstance incidents and events.