- Ghosts of Camptown
Heinz Insu Fenkl’s Memories of My Ghost Brother (1996), a memoir of his childhood in the South Korean military camptown of Pupyong, opens appropriately enough with ghosts.1 In particular, the narrative begins with the ghost of a Japanese military officer who is rumored to have inhabited, in an earlier era of Japanese colonialism in Korea, the house into which young Insu, the first-person narrator, and his family move: “Before we moved in, we had heard rumors about why the rent was so low. Everyone said that the house had been built during the Japanese Annexation by a Colonel who tortured and murdered tens of thousands of Koreans for his amusement” (5). The rumors of this ghost become real when Insu sees and even speaks to the ghost of the Japanese Colonel. But rather than being cruel and vindictive, this ghost seems to Insu to be sad and lonely. The ghost—as well as the many other ghosts who inhabit the memoir—represents the unburied lingering effect of the everyday and pervasive experience of exacerbated death, or in other words, death that is not natural but is socially engineered, as a consequence of colonial and neocolonial violence. Memories of My Ghost Brother departs from the conventions of memoir in a variety of ways, not the least significant of which is the centrality of the magical, mythic events and portents that Fenkl matter-of-factly narrates as constituting his earliest experiences.
In this strange and haunting narrative, the sex workers and their mixed-race children who inhabit Pupyong share their space with ghosts, goblins, and other mythical beings.2 Unlike the Latin American texts seen as most representative of the genre of magical realism, Fenkl’s text does not establish a realistic tone that is interrupted by magical or mythical events.3 Instead, the tone of the text is magical or mythical, and the incongruity emerges when the commonplace brutalities that characterize militarized sex work are represented in this otherworldly manner. I engage this novel’s deployment of form—focusing in particular on the strategy of embedding fantastical stories within the narrative structure and the ways in which the mystical or magical tone of these stories pervades the entire narrative—establishing a frame seemingly incongruous with the memoir’s setting within the routine cruelties of a town that exists to provide paid sex and other commodities to the US military. If a classically realist tone and linear narrative arc are the formal expressions of nationalist culture, the autobiographical novel’s [End Page 49] departure from these formal strategies, I argue, is necessary to convey the complex juridical status of the camptown. Through a curious excess of state sovereignty, because they are simultaneously under both US and South Korean sovereignty, the camptown and its residents are subject to abandonment by both nation-states, producing a heightened vulnerability to death. This state of existence between life and death means the exacerbation of death within the ranks of the residents, creating the ghosts that inhabit the narrator’s world, but also renders the inhabitants of the camptown as themselves ghostly. These inhabitants and their contradictory juridical states are exemplary, rather than anomalous, within contemporary geopolitics. As such, I read the camptown as a precursor to the myriad forms of complex sovereignty that many have argued are hallmarks of contemporary neoliberalism.
In this essay, I argue that the formal aspects of the work are an index of the ambivalent condition of the camptown itself. While on South Korean soil and ostensibly under South Korean sovereignty, the camptown is, in effect, governed by the US military and its policies. Yet the camptown cannot simply be read as a metaphor for South Korea’s neocolonized status vis-à-vis the United States, insofar as South Korea’s status has enabled its emergence as a subempire in the Pacific region. Scholars have demonstrated that South Korea’s subimperialist influence over the Pacific region is due in significant part to its role in the Vietnam War, which provides the backdrop to Memories of My Ghost Brother.4 South Korea was an ally of the United States in the conflict, providing troops...