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  • On "Cranes"
  • David R. McCann (bio)

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...