‘Trees on a Slope’ by Hwang Sun-won (Review)

As mentioned in earlier posts, discovering the K-Lit section in the main library of the university where I occasionally work has enabled me to pick up books I’d never have found in the public library.  This allows me to check out classic writers like today’s choice, Hwang Sun-won, without having to resort to Amazon and the like.  Was this one another library success?  Let’s find out…

*****
Trees on a Slope (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is the story of three friends in the South Korean army during the Korean War.  With the armistice marking the end of serious conflict in sight, melancholy Tong-ho, wise-cracking Hyon-t’ae and the taciturn Yun-gu are trying their best to get through the next few weeks intact.

Despite several engagements with the enemy, the three friends manage to come through a tricky time alive, if not unscathed.  Hyon-t’ae is injured in battle, but when he comes back to his group, he realises that he’s got off pretty lightly:

“Other friends had trickled over to shake hands with Hyon-t’ae and welcome him back.  Hyon-t’ae noticed quite a few soldiers that he didn’t recognize – reinforcements.  Hyon-t’ae was forced to the realization that many of his comrades had died in the fighting preceding the armistice.  As the men who had gathered around him recited the names of the casualties, gloom shaded their faces.  But spreading beneath that gloom was an undeniable tinge of joy that they had survived.  And what was wrong with that, so long as they kept the joy to themselves?”
p.27 (University of Hawai’i Press, 2005)

As time goes by, though, Hyon-t’ae will learn that there’s more to surviving a war than just avoiding the bullets.  Once the fighting stops, the real struggle has only just begun…

According to Bruce Fulton’s afterword, literature examining the Korean War is relatively uncommon, but Hwang (a writer lauded mainly for his short stories) is someone who did engage with the topic.  In Trees on a Slope, while touching on the actual events of the conflict, the writer focuses on the aftermath, on what became of the survivors of an horrific time in Korean history.  While some were able to put the past behind them, thriving in the new era, others remained trapped in the past, held back by the memories of what they had suffered – or the suffering they inflicted on others.

Much of the first part of the book concentrates on Tong-ho, the most intelligent of the three friends.  While Hyon-t’ae and Yun-gu escape into alcohol and women paid by the hour, ‘the poet’ (as Hyon-t’ae dubs him) is kept warm by memories of his relationship with the chaste Sugi.  With a girlfriend waiting for him at home, he is unwilling to be corrupted, no matter how much his friends complain.  However, the longer the war drags on, the more he begins to wonder whether his ideals are as important as he’d always thought.  It’s the first step towards an uncertain, disturbing future.

Part Two shifts the focus onto Hyon-t’ae, an interesting, enigmatic figure, and one whose character is slightly more ambiguous than those of the other ex-soldiers.  His wealthy background allows him to indulge himself in a life of aimless wandering, drinking and visits to houses of dubious morals (although there are few people with morals more dubious than his own).  In despair, his mother tries to pack him off to the US, a plan Hyon-t’ae isn’t averse to – if only he could summon up the energy:

“When Hyon-t’ae learned that his visa had been issued, he had wanted to leave at once – if only to free himself of the lethargy resulting from his tiresome idleness, a lethargy that shrouded his life and surroundings.  And occasionally thereafter he would feel a desire to leave for some distant place.  But every time, he would feel it was harder to extricate himself from his lethargy than it had been to penetrate an enemy encirclement during the war.” (p.136)

But why can’t he make a new start?  You sense that it has something to do with the events of the past – Hyon-t’ae is still haunted by the memories of his war days.

At the start of the novel, when the three friends are examining a deserted village, the book I was most reminded of was All Quiet on the Western Front, the classic First World War novel.  However, as the story developed, there were actually many similarities with several of Erich-Maria Remarque’s other works.  Coming Home (The Way Back) and Three Comrades looked at the struggle German soldiers faced on their return to mainstream society, and Trees on a Slope shows Korean soldiers facing very much the same problems.  In all of these books, the young men fortunate enough to escape with their lives are faced with new struggles, the need to find work and money and the search for love, all while facing down the demons in their mind.

What’s slightly different here, though, is that while the majority of Germans were spared the atrocities of war (during WWI, at least), the Korean War was a conflict that raged across the peninsula, and everyone has their own story to tell.  In addition to following the main characters, Hwang paints a picture of a country exhausted by internecine warfare, with fields gone to waste during the years of conflict.  The picture a few years on may be better economically, but the mental scars remain…

Trees on a Slope is an interesting read, but one issue Western readers should be aware of is that the way it portrays women can be quite disturbing.  Few of the female characters are fully fleshed out, and on several occasions, whether working girls or not, male characters force themselves upon them.  I’ve read two Korean books so far this year, and both have described, or alluded to, rape on several occasions.  I’m not sure, in either case, that the reader is meant to lose all sympathy for the perpetrators…

Be that as it may, in Trees on a Slope, one thing Hwang is sure of is that the suffering hasn’t been confined to the dead.  As Sugi, in her search for the truth about Tong-ho, says to Yun-gu towards the end of the novel:

“I don’t know about the painful experience you mentioned…  But in a larger sense is there any young person who hasn’t been hurt by this war?  Hyon-t’ae appears to be no exception.  And perhaps I’m not either.” (p.190)

Years after the real fighting has finished, the casualties of war continue to amass…

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6 thoughts on “‘Trees on a Slope’ by Hwang Sun-won (Review)

  1. “The picture a few years on may be better economically, but the mental scars remain…”

    In our western Zeitgeist, economic improvement is expected to heal all. Not only is that not true, but that process creates new, sometimes worse tensions as we have seen in so many parts of the world. The value of world literature is the ability to bring that reality to life in a human, universal context. Thanks for calling attention to this book.

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    1. Joe – A lot of 80s/90s K-Lit looks at the cost of economic progress in Korea, comparing the advances made with the damage to people involved. One that really nails that is Cho Se-hui’s ‘The Dwarf’, a book highly critical of the ‘Miracle on the Han’.

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    1. Stu – Ah, it’s only because it’s a uni library. The usual libraries are very low on K-Lit, so I’m lucky to be able to flash my staff card and walk the five flights up to a deserted reference section 😉

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  2. Thanks for this interesting and insightful review, which I have just found by chance on my travels through the inter-world. I read this book several years ago and found it much more than ‘an interesting read’ (which to me sounds perilously close to ‘damning through faint praise’, though the rest of the review compensates!). In fact this is the book that first launched me onto a journey through Korean literature and culture which I continue to enjoy. The way that this book entered into the psyches and fates of the three main protagonists seemed to me absorbing and to draw the reader fully into the tensions and uncertainties of these young men facing pressures outside their control. Certainly ‘an interesting read’ – is it more? – I’ll try to get hold of a copy again and see if my reaction was simply over-impressed by the new and unexpected!

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    1. Bill – It’s been a while, so I had to think hard about this one 😉 Looking back at my review, I think the scenes featuring women were a little hard to take (as mentioned, it wasn’t the first time I’d had that issue with K-Lit, even that week…). It is a good novel, but I wasn’t quite as blown away by it as you appear to have been 🙂

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