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Reviewed by:
  • The Guest
  • Ronald Suleski (bio)
The Guest, by Hwang Sok-yong, translated by Kyungja Chun and Maya West, Seven Stories Press, 2005, $27.95, hardcover, ISBN 1-58322-693-1.

Perhaps more than most Asian peoples, Koreans live with ghosts. Most often these are the spirits of someone they knew in life, someone who died an untimely or cruel death, someone whose soul cannot find peaceful repose. Ghosts may startle when they appear, but they do not frighten because, after all, they are a part of one's past.

So it is for the protagonist of this novel, Ryu Yosop, a Korean Presbyterian minister living in Brooklyn in the 1990s, who decides to visit his hometown in North Korea, a place from which he had been separated for forty years. The ghosts he meets there are those from his boyhood, people he had known since birth. They perished horribly, in the midst of recrimination and torture, in October 1950 at the beginning of the Korean War. In North Korea, Reverend Kim sees the museum near his hometown filled with photos of slaughtered victims, posted as a testament, the guides proclaim, to the atrocities committed by American troops upon innocent Korean civilians. The museum actually exists in the North Korean district of Sinchon in Hwanghae Province, and is full of photographs of long-dead victims slaughtered, according to the commentary, by American soldiers.

In October 1950, Yosop was a boy of fourteen and he remembers the story differently. He remembers that when the Korean [End Page 289] Communist cadre arrived in the village, many of its poorest members quickly joined the Communist Party. Their status was elevated by party membership and they helped to direct the arrests of those who had once held land and power. The Korean Presbyterians in the village, a well-organized group of small landowners, denounced the Communists as followers of Satan who would never allow the countryside to become Christian. The American troops, having landed at Inchŏn and then advancing northward toward the village, were said to be crusaders whom the Korean Presbyterians would aid by eliminating the Communist sympathizers in their village. The Christians began to arrest and execute the Communists, expecting the American reinforcements to arrive soon. The Communists, of course, were most often fellow villagers.

So began the brutalities, torture, and executions that the villagers on both sides, once neighbors and childhood friends, carried out against each other. By the time the American army arrived, the fratricidal killing had mostly ended. In the novel, Yosop's elder brother had been one of those Christians who killed whole families in the name of anti-Communism. He had recently died in the United States and his spirit is one of the ghosts accompanying Yosop on the journey back home. Once in the village, the ghosts of two boyhood friends appear to greet Yosop. The ghosts are murderer and victim, together as when they were children, their spirits having passed beyond the cruelties their human bodies did not survive.

The facts behind the novel's account are true. Witnesses to the slaughters, living in the United States in the early 1990s, recounted the story for the author. The museum in North Korea demonstrates how photographs can stand as mute documentation for different narratives. It is the ghosts and their presence who populate this novel, who shadow the main characters, and who, ultimately, force the reader to ponder the events of the story. [End Page 290]

Hwang Sok-yong, the author of this thoughtful work of fiction, is a household name in South Korea and in the North as well. He is respected as a fiercely independent voice determined to speak about human beings as complex, selfish, and forgiving people. In 1989, he defied laws of the South Korean government by traveling to North Korea to speak with Korean writers living in the North, at a time when contact between both sides was proscribed. After voluntary exile in New York and Germany to avoid being imprisoned by the government in the South, he returned to Seoul in 1993 because, as he strongly felt at the time, a writer needs to live in the country...