Hwang Sunwŏn (1915-2000) was seen as a fine writer, though critical judgment seemed to weigh against him for his purported avoidance of the themes of his day: the Japanese colonial occupation (1910-1945), the division of Korea in 1945, and the Korean War (1950-1953) and its aftermath, notably including the repressive political regimes running from Syngman Rhee through Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo Hwan, to Roh Tae Woo. Originally published in 1953, "Cranes" in particular seems to elicit a reaction against what is viewed as too romantic an ending-the cranes flying off into the blue sky-for its subject, the brutal Korean War. Yet the story is far more complex than its scant number of pages would suggest, its shifting point of view having a resonance with the events of the war and the years preceding that stands as a bold challenge to the tragic political uncertainties of that time in Korean history. It demands a second reading, and stands as its own demonstration that the structure and movement within a narrative are as significant as the contents.
While they may be considered elementary by some, the notes that follow are meant as soundings, to record the depths of a story that many readers view as simple and romantic. This is an anti-reading, and if some or most of it seems obvious to our readers, then let that stand as a measure of the superficial nature of the usual [End Page 313] construals of Hwang Sunwŏn's work. It is not the case that he was a simple and romantic writer as the typical reading suggests.
The story opens with a swooping movement down from the autumn sky to the ground, from the "high, clear" overarching sweep of the sky to a place on a map, "north of the 38th boundary." The reader arrives on the ground in a quiet village filled with empty houses, yet occupied by old people and children, all their faces "marked by fear." A character appears, someone who had "grown up as a youngster" in the village, who immediately climbs a chestnut tree into recollections about his childhood. The character, now named Sŏngsam, looks back up at the autumn sky which framed the story's beginning; then within the more local and restricted purview of his gaze, the same descending movement that started the story repeats itself, as a chestnut falls to the ground. The narrative is full of movement, up and down, back and forth between present and memory, while it sets in juxtaposition the figures of the young boys stealing chestnuts and the old grandfather who owned the trees. We have noted the fear in everyone's face, and may have ascribed it to the general atmosphere related to the war, the "broken remnants of the present conflict." Quickly and deftly, the story opens with what seems a simple entry of a person into a place, but sets up a situation marked by edges, borders, accusations, and characters who share both residence in a place but also tensions in their interrelationships.
The next sequence of the story moves in a somewhat similar way, though on the ground rather than down from the sky. As he makes his way into the village, Sŏngsam comes to a particular house that has been turned into the headquarters of the Public Peace Corps, where he sees someone tied up in the handcuff rope used historically as well as into the present time both to restrain and also to mark a prisoner as guilty: "chairman of the Farmers Collective Committee, this one was, caught hiding out in his own house." But the narrative then turns to deconstruct that label of the prisoner as it brings the two friends back together through [End Page 314] their recollections of childhood events. Tŏkchae, first presented to the reader tied up in prisoner rope and labeled by the highest rank that local village leaders were given as North Korean troops moved into local territories, turns out to have been the truly filial son, while Sŏngsam, the character through whose eyes the reader first encounters the scene of the story, is revealed to have been the unreliable opportunist who left his own father and young family as he snuck off one night to seek a better fortune in the south.
As the two characters talk, they begin to reconnect through their memories of Short Stuff, the woman Tŏkchae has married. Sŏngsam asks, empathetically, "But don't you think it is suspicious, you hanging around, not trying to get away?" Tŏkchae's answer not only reverses who was the good and loyal son, which he turns out to have been; it also reparses the opening of the story, shifting its entire framework. As Tŏkchae explains why he had stayed in the village despite the warning that those from the south would kill all the men between the ages of seventeen and forty, the reader realizes that the fear in the faces of the villagers at the beginning of the story is not some generalized anxiety related to the conflict, but fear at the sight of Sŏngsam as he walks into his old village, a member of the much feared southern forces, with the reader following closely behind.
For a story published in 1953, this reframing of the meaning of southern might have been a hazardous political statement indeed-that the forces of the south could be as murderous as the communists were reported to be. It is also a deft narrative move, forcing the story to double back reiteratively upon itself. Readers may also note that the passage at the very center of the story, the shift in the presentation of Tŏkchae, through Sŏngsam's altering vision of him, from murderous commie to dedicated son and farmer to husband of Short Stuff, is marked by a shift from simple past tense to the present tense. Not nearly as visible in the English translation, there is another shift as well in the resonance of the phrase "sunnuva!" The old grandfather's shout at the boys is "Yŏnom ûi chasikdûl!" Chasik means offspring; nom means fellow in a [End Page 315] Dickensian sense, as in The Pickwick Papers. That is, it often means a bad fellow, a verbal prelude to a physical fight. I noma! means "This fellow hey!" but more like the English "All right you!" But with different intonation, when said to a well-known pal, it simply means "Hi, it's you." The old grandfather's shout, then, means "You little brats," but also "You children of a guy from here!" The narrative's frequent repetition of the term as Sŏngsam expresses his intention to punish, perhaps kill, Tŏkchae has the effect of invoking the other sense of the term as well, the bond between the two.
The story sweeps to its close with the image of the great white cranes soaring through the clear autumn sky where the story first began. Some find the image too simple, too romantic, not true to the brutal reality of war. I read the cranes as invested with their white-clothed human counterparts, the farmers "in the center of the fields . . . wearing their white clothes, backs bent," and the soaring movement as a deliberate reinvocation of the story's opening, a move that requires the reader to imagine what will happen next, what story will follow. After the two men replay their childhood game of chasing the cranes, where can they go? Can Tŏkchae, having escaped, go back to his village now occupied by the troops from the south? Having lost the prisoner, where can Sŏngsam go? Hwang Sunwŏn's subsequent stories can be read as a continued engagement with the ground-level implications of the questions raised and joined by his 1953 short story "Cranes." [End Page 316]
David R. McCann is Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature at Harvard University. He has translated the work of many Korean poets-including Kim Chiha, Sŏ Chŏngju, Ko Un, and Kim Namjo-and is the author or editor of many books, including The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry and The Way I Wait for You, a collection of his own poems.