November’s German Literature Month celebration means that it’s been a while since I’ve posted on any Korean writing, but this week will partially make up for that with reviews of two books from the country. The two works both focus on women, and the issues they face in Korean society, with today’s read taking us back to a disturbing time in Korean history.
Before we go any further, there’s a need for a warning. This book is all about an extremely delicate and distressing topic, so if mentions of brutal rape and violence have a particular effect on you, it’s probably best if you avoid this post, and the book.
One of many issues affecting the relationship between South Korea and Japan is that of the so-called ‘comfort women’. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Korean women were forcibly taken from their homes (or tricked with promises of factory work) and sent to brothels, or ‘comfort stations’, around Asia to service Japanese soldiers. Despite the label, those abducted into sexual slavery were not always women; many girls, some pre-menstrual, were also dragged off to a gruesome fate.
This topic is the focus of Kim Soom’s One Left (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, review copy courtesy of University of Washington Press), a novel that uses the accounts of victims to create a story of a woman looking back at her experiences. Now in her nineties, living alone in an old, run-down house, she sees on television one evening that another of the comfort women has passed away, leaving only one documented survivor of the atrocities. This news brings back memories of her own ordeal, and she begins to relive the years she spent in Manchuria before her escape at the end of the war.
The brutality of life at the comfort station is the main focus here, of course, but the years spent in captivity are far from the whole story. Having survived the ordeal, the woman needs to go on with her life; the question is how. Unable to have children and unwilling to marry for fear of infecting, or simply humiliating, any potential partner, the woman knows only too well that hers is a whole life destroyed at the tender age of twelve…
One Left is a sobering account of a major historical tragedy, and as I explained in my introduction, it doesn’t make for pleasant reading. The woman casually recounts how dozens of men raped her each day, remembering the squalid conditions she and the other women were forced to live in. Quite apart from the forced intercourse, there were the frequent beatings, both from the soldiers and her Korean madam and pimp, as well as the ever-present risk of STDs, which at the time were often akin to death sentences.
These memories are interspersed with flashes of the woman’s present-day life as she goes about her business in a neighbourhood slated for demolition. Here she’s surrounded by the last ‘survivors’, generally older, poorer folk: a man with a mentally disabled son; a shopkeeper whose wife is unable to stand up; a seamstress with an old dog used for breeding puppies (for sale). This death of a neighbourhood provides a fitting comparison with the comfort women story, with both groups gradually dying out and slowly disappearing. However, there’s a further parallel when police in the neighbourhood arrive late in the novel; the discovery of some Chinese women living in the old houses serves as a reminder that sexual slavery is certainly not a thing of the past.
One of the major themes of One Left is that of guilt. Early on the woman recalls a visit to the home town of one of her friends where she learned that the other woman never made it back. We are shown the mothers of the town crowding around her, asking about their daughters’ fate. Unfortunately, theirs was the lot of the majority, as the woman is amazed to discover:
There were two hundred thousand of them, she had heard. But only twenty thousand returned after Liberation from Japan. More dismaying than the fact that she is one of two hundred thousand comfort women is the realization that she is one of only twenty thousand who made it back home. That’s one tenth, or one out of ten.
…..Did I get that right? Only one out of ten survived? How could that be?
p.91 (University of Washington Press, 2020)
And now there’s only one left – but the old woman knows that she’s there, too.
The comfort women issue is an important one, and luckily Kim approaches the task of examining it superbly. One Left is very much a novel, and Kim and her translators do a wonderful job of weaving a nuanced, well written tale. There’s an excellent balance of then and now, with the reader often blindsided by a sudden switch from everyday activities to sexual assault:
The moth looks like a uterus. Her uterus, the army of ants sinking their tiny teeth into it and holding on for dear life reminding her of the line of Japanese soldiers jostling one another while awaiting their turn with her. She begins to gag. (p.13)
The woman’s memories are often tripped by association, so she does her best to avoid objects or food that bring back the pain, not always successfully.
However, this is not entirely a work of fiction. Kim’s approach was to examine documentary evidence, the very words of the survivors, and use them to create her own ‘comfort woman’, one who stayed in the shadows, never coming forward even after the brave testimony of Kim Haksun in 1991, the first of the women to go public. One notable feature of the novel is the use of endnotes, linking the events Kim describes to the women they actually happened to. In truth, these notes are of little use to the average reader, yet they serve a vital purpose. Any time you start to relax into the novel, drifting off into fiction, the tiny numbers provide a stark connection to the truth, a reminder of the faces behind the story.
The book contains a brief foreword by Bonnie Oh, an academic who has written extensively on comfort women, and an afterword by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, in which the translators explain the fascinating, and surprising, history of the English-language version. With many publishers uncomfortable with the nature of the text, falling as it does somewhere between general literature and academic writing, the book was rejected by over thirty presses. For whatever reason, many people believed Kim’s story would be hard to market, but fortunately the University of Washington Press did eventually decide to commission the translation.
I, for one, am very glad One Left did find a home. It would be a mistake to describe it as enjoyable, and it may be a little too much for some readers at times, but it’s nevertheless a well-crafted and important work. As the last of the comfort women pass away, Kim’s take on the issue is a call not to forget them. Her novel is never mawkish or sentimental, nor manipulative, but simply a powerful reminder of an injustice done to Korean women, and a book well worth finding time for.