‘The Old Garden’ by Hwang Sok-yong (Review)

IMG_5375The South Korean government takes great pains to promote the country in a certain way, a small, powerful state with a bit of a victim mentality, a nation which has pulled itself out of poverty to wealth and stability in the space of a couple of generations (while exporting pop music and television drama to the rest of the world).  Of course, this isn’t the full story, and the dark side of this economic growth, including exploitation of workers and the menace of military rule, is played down somewhat.  This is where writers come into their own, peeling back the shiny surface of a country – and if you’re looking for an author who refuses to gloss over the unsavoury periods of recent Korean history, then Hwang Sok-yong is your man 🙂

The Old Garden (translated by Jay Oh, published by Seven Stories Press) begins in the late nineties as Oh Hyun Woo, a political dissident of the Kwangju era, is released from prison after serving eighteen years of his life sentence.  After almost two decades locked away, freedom comes as a shock, as do the massive changes the outside world has undergone during that time (in the car on his way home from prison, he describes his nephew’s mobile phone as ‘a small object that looked like a transistor’).  His first few days are spent adjusting to the wider spaces of free society, trying to come to terms with a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Once he has recovered a little, Hyun Woo sets off on a journey to the country town of Kalmae, a place where he spent several months in hiding before his eventual arrest.  The woman he spent that time with, painter Han Yoon Hee, passed away several years before his release from prison, but on his arrival at the old house, he discovers her diaries.  Written over the space of fifteen years, the notebooks remind him of the time they spent together – and reveal some secrets he never suspected.

The Old Garden is an excellent, expansive work, one in which Korea’s dirty laundry is aired in public.  There are actually several strands to the novel, apart from the present day descriptions of Hyun Woo’s release and his subsequent attempts to adapt to modern life.  One major focus is on Yoon Hee’s diaries, detailing her life after Hyun Woo’s arrest, and the choices she made during the hectic eighties; another is Hyun Woo’s memories of his time in prison, a grim description of life behind bars.

The writer expertly describes the life of an imprisoned dissident, showing the reader what life in solitary confinement was like and explaining the importance of routines.  We also get to experience the careful preparations for hunger strikes, the joys of the hourly exercise session in the fresh air and the attempts to make pets of mice and pigeons, even if these are destined to end unhappily:

There was blood everywhere on white snow, and all that remained were her feathers.  The soft feathers were swept away by the wind and caught on the chain link fence nearby, where they fluttered as if they were still alive.  The next day, and each day until the spring arrived, I continued to feed the pigeons twice a day, but I stopped naming them and singling any out.  Attachment is vain.
pp.281/2 (Seven Stories Press, 2009)

In reading about Hyun Woo and his pets, it’s hard to avoid thinking about his other relationships, with Yoon Hee and his fellow dissidents.  The stories of animals struck down cruelly come very close to allegories of what happened to those resisting government oppression…

While the Kwangju massacre is prominent in most descriptions of the book (and it does come up several times), in fact, this is more of a post-Kwangju novel.  The Old Garden is a story of how the crackdown fuelled a nationwide resistance movement, with news of the atrocities spreading slowly throughout the country.  The government was forced to try to root out the instigators, and Hyun Woo, an active member of the movement, is forced to go on the run.

With his swift arrest, though, it’s Yoon Hee who is actually more involved in the movement for the majority of the novel.  A move to Seoul brings her into the orbit of several dissidents, and with her background (both her father and her de facto spouse are legends of the left), it’s inevitable that she will drift into helping underground groups.  Her main task is communicating the events of May 1980, typing out eye-witness accounts of the Kwangju massacre:

With enraged voices, they told me stories.  Stories of bodies found on the northern outskirts of the city, secretly buried in the mountains.  Stories of someone witnessing a garbage man carrying bodies in his truck and dumping them in a park pond.  Stories of dead bodies thrown into the reservoir, which was then filled with a powerful disinfectant.  Stories of how people could not drink the water from the faucet throughout the summer.  For them, the situation was not over yet.  On the street, they avoided meeting others’ eyes, as if they were accomplices in a  crime.  They told me stories from the deepest part of their hearts. (p.184)

Her work in spreading the stories allows these voices to be heard, but in doing so she is also honouring the memory of her partner, locked away by the same people responsible for the events of Kwangju.

Overall, The Old Garden provides a brief overview of twenty years of Korean history, with allusions to other, earlier tragedies (such as Yoon Hee’s father’s stories of the Jeju massacre in 1947).  It’s another work to add to the list of protest books dotting modern Korean literature (e.g. Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently FallsCho Se-hui’s The Dwarf, Han Kang’s (forthcoming in English) Human Acts).  What makes Hwang’s work stand out in this list, though, is his own experience.  Having visited North Korea, he became persona non grata, and after voluntarily returning from exile in the U.S., he was promptly thrown in prison, only emerging five years later after a change of regime…

Interesting and multi-faceted, the novel makes good use of the various strands, switching between the different stories regularly without losing the overall sense of progression.  In fact, the only place where the story started to drag a little was when Yoon Hee moved to Berlin towards the end of the book.  The idea is understandable, with Hwang looking at the events of 1989 and the parallels with a divided Korea – what was seen with joy in most of the world was actually disappointing for those Koreans hoping for the success of socialism over capitalism.  For Korean readers, this may have come across as exotic; for Western readers (or this one, at least), it simply detracted from the main story and its Korean focus.

Despite that minor false step, The Old Garden is a fascinating read, never outstaying its welcome over its 500-plus pages.  It’s a further example of the importance of literature, its role in society of  telling stories that need to be heard.  A little K-Pop doesn’t hurt, but we shouldn’t be too blinded by the smoke and mirrors of the entertainment world – let’s not sweep everything that’s happened since 1945 under the carpet of Hallyu

2 thoughts on “‘The Old Garden’ by Hwang Sok-yong (Review)

  1. Good review (as always). I agree with you about the part of the story which takes place in Germany. I do not know how the korean readers reacted but as for myself, it did play with my reader’s patience. As a consequence it turns out that I found the movie adaptation of this novel (same title) more satisfying; it gives more details on the political background and does not cover the Germany’s part thus resulting in a more homogeneous story. Nevertheless, it is a book well worth reading.


    1. Space Cadet – Good to hear someone agrees as I thought I was being a little picky there 🙂 Up to that point, the sections alternated nicely, but this part dragged and took us away from Hyun Woo for too long.


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