Over the seventy years since the end of the Second World War, there have been so many fictional accounts of the conflict that readers could be forgiven for thinking that there can’t be much new to say about it. However, every so often you do stumble across a book which takes a look at the subject from a slightly different perspective (which, I suppose, is one of the reasons why the war is such a popular literary topic), and today’s choice shows us the war years through the eyes of Korean soldiers. They’re about to embark on an epic journey, one they hope will end with a return to their mother country; the only thing is that they’re going the long way round…
Cho Chongnae’s How in Heaven’s Name (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, review copy courtesy of Merwin Asia) begins in Mongolia, where the Japanese Guangdong army is in disarray, falling back in the face of an onslaught from Russian tanks. Shin Kil-man and his fellow Korean ‘volunteer’ soldiers are certain that their days are numbered, knowing that if the Russian firebombs don’t get them, their suicidal officers probably will. However, some of the stragglers manage to avoid both enemy bullets and orders to kill themselves, and for a brief time they are in the relative safety of Russian captivity.
In the midst of a global conflict, though, rest and a full belly are ephemeral concepts, and the soldiers soon have a choice to make. Having been forced into the Japanese Imperial army, the Koreans are seen as the enemy-of-my-enemy by the Red Army troops – which in the logic of war makes them friends of the Russians. With a stark choice between an uncertain captivity and a second military career, many of the Koreans opt to join Stalin’s troops. Now if only the Germans weren’t attacking in the west…
How in Heaven’s Name is a fairly short novel, but it certainly packs a lot into its pages. It’s the story of how Korean soldiers found themselves on a journey half-way around the world, swapping uniforms several times in a desperate attempt to keep themselves alive and eventually make it home. It would be easy to write this off as fantasy were it not for the fact that this is all based on true events, with eyewitness accounts telling of Korean soldiers involved in war arenas as far apart as Mongolia and Normandy. Each move takes the soldiers further away from where they want to be:
“Doesn’t it feel like we’re getting farther and farther from home?” said Kang. His voice had taken on a gloomy tinge.
“Heaven only knows what’s going to happen to us.”
p.31 (Merwin Asia, 2012)
Sadly, many of those involved will be dead long before the war ends…
While How in Heaven’s Name is a novel about World War Two, in many ways it’s also a book exploring the feelings of men forced by circumstance to leave their homes behind. In the first chapter, Kil-man is in the middle of the Mongolian plains, still disconcerted by the open spaces:
“Having lived all his life in a land where beyond the mountains were more mountains, he was still getting used to the notion of a horizon. He had often seen a horizon at sea but the concept of a horizon on land was new to him.” (p.12)
Fighting a losing battle in Nomonhan (a place some of you may have heard of from reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) is just the first step on the journey. There’s to be long trips across the plains, the bitter cold of Russia and the warmer (but still deadly) climes of the Atlantic coast. Seoul is a very long way away.
Once captured by the Russians, Kil-man is delighted to find other Koreans, and in flocking together, they give each other the strength they need to survive, despite their homesickness. In fact, once out of the clutches of the Japanese, there’s often a light tone to their banter, with dreams of rice and kimchi contrasting with the realities of western food, cuisine which isn’t always to their liking:
“Strangest bread I ever tasted,” grumbled Chong impatiently. “Why do you suppose it’s so sandy – and what happened to the taste? First time I ate it I figured the baker must have made a mistake, but every day it keeps coming out the same. How do they expect a man to live on this stuff?”
Pae stopped chewing long enough to scowl. “Yeah, really. Maybe the wheat they grow in Germany is the problem.” (p.82)
Now if only that were the biggest problem the Korean soldiers had to deal with…
Away from the Korean issues, though, this is still a novel about the war, and as time passes, the reader knows how events are likely to pan out. One of the problems here is that the Korean soldiers don’t, and in their travels across Europe they will change sides, and uniforms, several times, without knowing which side will eventually come out on top. Once the war has come to an end, there may well be a price to pay for those who have made poor choices over the previous years, and home might be further away than ever.
How in Heaven’s Name is certainly a fascinating story, and anyone with an interest in the war will enjoy reading about this little-known aspect. At just under 140 pages, it’s a surprisingly quick look at the topic, and the style is fairly straightforward, meaning most readers will knock this off in a couple of hours or so. For a writer whose fame in Korea rests primarily on gigantic, historical romans-fleuves, this book seems a little slight, but perhaps it will encourage publishers to take a look at his meatier back catalogue (although I’m not sure just how much appetite western presses have for Korean historical fiction…).
In the meantime, though, this is one of the few chances you’ll have to try Cho’s work, so if this sounds like your kind of book, you should give it a try. Yes, there’s a definite focus on the Korean experience, but the truth is that the hardships the soldiers face on their travels are universal. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what uniform you’re wearing – if you’re one of the footsoldiers on the ground, whoever wins, you’re likely to end up losing…
P.S. For those wanting to know more, Charles Montgomery, over at KTLit.com, linked to an interview with the translators in which they discuss the book. It’s about twenty-minutes long and it’s well worth a look 🙂