If you were shut in a cell for nearly two decades in the 80s and 90s, the years that saw huge shifts in the economical, technological and political scenes of the world, you will be bewildered by what you witness in the world. Oh Hyun Woo, a political prisoner, sentenced for life was released after 18 years of prison life is struggling to cope with the changes as he was released out of prison in the new millenium. He realises that the situation now is different, and what he and his friends fought for and sacrificed their youth and their life has no meaning in the changed time. Nothing new to look forward to and age at the wrong side of him, all he has is the old memories of love and friendship. But the only memory that remain fondly despite the gruelling years in jail, of meeting his love of life, which he soon realises, is no more. Yoon Hee, his love ( an affair lasted mere six month but remained forever) has died three year ago succumbs to cancer.
Broken and tormented, Hyun Woo, recedes to the small house in Kalmoe, where he and Yoon Hee spend the time during his hiding, leaving him with fond memories of rare happiness. He relives his life during those troubled times through the notes she left for him, through her diaries and the paintings. He rebuilds the life, trying to find a meaning for those days of revolutionary, and of his life in general.
"Here in Kalmae, as I've met the remains of Yoon Hee, I have found a partner, I can exist concretely through her. What was locked up in solitary confinement was not Oh Hyun Woo, but number 1444..Now I am returning to the world outside through my partner."
Written at the backdrops of the Kwangju ( or Gwangju ) civil demonstrations, which was brutally crushed by the military government of Chun Doo-hwan, Wiki says, In May 1980, civil demonstrations took place in Gwangju against the newly installed military government of Chun Doo-hwan resulting in hundreds of civilians being killed by the Korean Military. The demonstrations were suppressed by military forces, including elite units of the Special Operations Command. Most commentators agree that the suppression was characterized by its egregious brutality, including several incidents where military forces fired automatic weapons into crowds of unarmed demonstrators. Gwangju is sometimes called "the shrine of Korean democracy" because of this incident, which is known today as the Gwangju Democratization Movement. After civilian rule was reinstated, a national cemetery was established honoring the victims of the incident.
Hwang Sok-Yong recalls those days through the tale of a love and sacrifice. Hyun Woo and his friends are on the run fearing arrest and torture. As in the case of every revolutionary movement, there are underground operations, the propaganda work, the arrests and torture leading to more revelations and more arrests. The strength of ideology and will power of the youth continue to create ripples in the society and causes trouble to the government, until every one them are arrested and put behind bars. Hyun Woo, suggested as the king pin by the authorities manage to avoid arrest for a longer time, eventually falling into their hand. The days of torture and interrogation saw him sentenced to solitary confinement which continued for over 18 years. Looking back he says, "We knew we would fail, but we believed that the truth would be revealed, even if it took a long time, and we believed in a future where the world would be transformed into a righteous place"
Yoon Hee, an art teacher who is entrusted with the task of proving shelter for the fleeing Hyun Woo, find herself attracted to the man under her protection. Their love is recreated through the letters and other pages she wrote, and left behind for him, once diagnosed with illness.She even rebuilds the house as it was during those days anticipating his return, to its precise details. It is through these writings and the reminiscence that triggers in Hyun-Woo that brings the picture of the story in flash backs. Yoon Hee continue to sympathise with the movement post the arrest of her lover, by helping the others while studying and teaching paintings in Seoul, without being an activist.
The narration shifts between periods and locations as deemed fit, from the revolutionary days of Hyun Woo as an activist, to the notes and diaries of Yoon Hee, the solitary prison days of Hyun Woo, the present day after his release and the days spent at Kalmae in company of each other. I thought the writing of Hwang Sok-Yong wre at its best in these pages, until I think the narration fizzles out and loose some of its steam.
In the later part of the book, Yoon Hee spends a lot of time in Berlin pursuing her studies in art. It was during the decisive years of changes that shook eastern Europe. It was during this time, the changes of political thoughts and and direction to the obsessive left enthusiasts across the globe. These changes reflected in the thoughts of the erstwhile students and workers agitation leaders as well as Yoon Hee. What is interesting is the hidden parallel the author draws between the fall of the Berlin wall and the unification of Germany to the Korean Peninsula. Closely observing the behaviour of the erstwhile East Germans, who come over to the West to experience the new world, with the 'stipend' they receive at the border. In a similar way, Yoon Hee and her friend entertain a North Korean student strayed ( against the permission the North Korean Authorities imposes on him) into West Berlin and host him for a couple of days and helps him to return safely.
Hwang Sok-Yong's political thoughts and sympathies are obvious through out the novel. He was arrested and sentenced for alleged visit to North Korea in the 90s. In that sense, this is a strong political novel, where the intensity drops down ( as in the real case in South Korea) towards the end period. By then Korea has ousted the military Dictators and have progressed economically in a very significant way. The changes in the world political system is reflected in the thoughts of the Koreans as well so is in the novel.
Hwang Sok-yong also wrote for the theater, and several members of a company were killed while performing one of his plays during the 1980 Kwangju uprising. During this time Hwang Sok-yong went from being a politically committed writer revered by students and intellectuals, to participating directly in the struggle. As he says: “ I fought Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship. I worked in the factories and farms of Cholla, and I took part in the movements of the masses throughout the country . . . in 1980, I took part in the Kwangju uprising. I improvised plays, wrote pamphlets and songs, coordinated a group of writers against the dictatorship, and started a clandestine radio station called “The voice of free Kwangju"
While there book announces itself as a love story, it examines sympathetically the students and workers movement giving it a legitimate voice. Hwang Sok-Yong is a brilliant writer and it is visible in this book. However, this books drags too much towards the end, drifting from the main theme loosing the continuity. It also charts the often drafted paths of melodrama with the daughter and re-union ( he handled them beautifully though) which is too much of a comfort to me. Otherwise it was a good read in spite of the old fashioned style of narrative ( even though it is written in 2009) through flash backs.-----------------------------------------------------------
The Ancient Garden ( 2009 )
Hwang Sok-Yong ( translated from Korean by Jay Oh 2009)
More read : NY Times, Korean Herald , London Korean Link, Korean Society ( film review)