Tr ans l at edbyJ anetHong
Homeland By Choi Seo-hae Translated by Janet Hong
Literature Translation Institute of Korea
Originally published in Korean as Goguk in Chosun Mundan, 1924
Translation ⓒ 2014 by Janet Hong
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and Literature Translation Institute of Korea. The original manuscripts to these translations were provided by Gongumadang of Korea Copyright Commission.
The National Library of Korea Cataloging-in-Publication Data Choi, Seo-hae Homeland [electronic resource] / authored by Choi Seo-hae ; translated by Janet Hong. -- [Seoul] : Literature Translation Institute of Korea, 2014 p. 원표제: 고국 Translated from Korean ISBN 978-89-93360-68-4 05810 : Not for sale 813.61-KDC5 895.733-DDC21
About Choi Seo-hae
Choi Seo-hae (1901-1932) is one of the major writers of early proletarian literature from the 1920s. Designated as the first of the Anti-Conventional School, Choi’s works heralded the arrival of a new kind of Literature of Poverty in the history of Korean literature. Born in Seongjin in North Hamgyeong Province in 1901, Choi grew up in extreme poverty. He wandered the Gando area from an early age, leading a rock-bottom existence, but despite a lack of formal education, he had a burning desire to pursue literature. He was able to debut as a writer when “Homeland” was published in Chosun Mundan in 1924 on the recommendation of the writer and activist Yi Kwang-su. His representative works, such as “Escape,” “Hunger and Slaughter,” “The Death of Bakdol,” “Seizing the Big Water,” “The Tyrant,” and “Bloody Flames,” take as their subjects struggling destitute characters who reject the established order and pursue survival through murder and arson. Although his vivid descriptions about poverty that have been borne of his personal experience are striking, the abrupt leaps in exposition tend to undermine the overall artistic composition. Choi’s debut story, “Homeland,” which depicts the hardships and frustration of one Korean man during the colonial era, is unlike the rest of his works, for the story is devoid of “anti-conventional” aspects. Although the motivations of the main character Unsim and the cause of his discontent remain unclear, the story still introduces the basic elements that characterize the rest of his fiction. Both “Consumption” and “Hunger and Slaughter” are clearly more in line with the rest of Choi’s work in terms of style and treatment. “Consumption,” with which Choi also debuted in 1924 when it was published in the Donga Ilbo, depicts the sufferings and pressures of a destitute man who cannot provide for his elderly mother, ailing wife, and young daughter. Their troubles increase as the story progresses, with the story ending in bleak despair when the protagonist’s mother is mortally wounded. In “Hunger and Slaughter,” which was published the following year and is essentially the same story as “Consumption,” we see Choi’s attempt at expanding and reworking many of the same themes and concerns. Names and the perspective have changed, and the thoughts of the main character, Kyeongsu, have been expanded to better illustrate his inner torment. However, the most significant and drastic change is the ending. Instead of simply fading out in passive despair, “Hunger and Slaughter” ends in tragic violence. Established in 1925, the Korean Federation of Proletarian Art (Korea Artista Proletera Federatio; KAPF) praised Choi Seo-hae’s works for serving the ideological purposes of the Party. However, it is difficult to say that Choi’s Literature of Poverty adhered exactly to Party principles, in the fact that his work had been shaped mainly by his own experience. This is also the reason why Choi’s work could not fuse with KAPF’s 3
ideology in the end and came under attack. After this period, Choi turned his attention on portraying the everyday joys and sorrows of the petit bourgeoisie, but his work was not met with a positive response and he ended up dying at an early age in 1932.
It was in mid-March of 1923 that Unsim’s shadow, which had left his homeland with grand hopes, appeared once again on Joseon soil. He was returning to Hoeryong for the first time. In worn sandals and a shabby black overcoat, he had jammed over his head a thick, out-of-season hood, under which his eyes blinked sluggishly and the hair under his chin and nose grew unevenly. Even his close friends would have failed to recognize him as the clever Unsim from five years ago. From Gando to Joseon, despite being driven from one hardship to another, Unsim couldn’t help but feel a certain hope and expectation. When he had seen the mountains and streams of his native country from across the Tumen River, his heart had swelled with such joy that he had wanted to break into a run. But he, who had traveled by hiring himself out for food and lodging, had no choice but to think about his financial woes. What pierced his heart next was the shame of being a failure. “What a failure I’ve become. In this city that’s growing day by day, surely everyone must have become a success by now. But look at me, I’m an utter failure…” Whenever he had these thoughts, he lost the courage to continue. It felt as though all the people certainly, but also the rocks and trees, even the nameless insects that crawled along the ground back home would insult, mock, and shun him. But since he had already begun his journey, he told himself that he had no choice but to go on. He crossed the river at Sadongtan. The police guarding the post didn’t bother to look at him, taking him as some beggar. Lucky for Unsim. He passed New Hoeryong Station and crossed a small stream sparsely populated with water willow that was just turning green. He passed Osan budding with azaleas on his right and then a Chinese vegetable garden. He climbed up the hill where the East Gate stood. The wide streets of Hoeryong spread before his eyes. The tiles on the roofs that overlapped like fish scales, the western-style houses jutting out here and there, the power lines hanging like spider webs, the honking cars, the whistling train—things he had only heard about until now overwhelmed his senses at once. Without giving any thought to finding an inn, he trudged down the slanted main road. Before he knew it, the sun had gone down. The electricity came on. The lamps that sparsely dotted the not quite dark street, the bright lights streaming from the windows of houses, the sound of the violin drifting through the twilight air, and the well-groomed people on the streets—to Unsim they all seemed to be from another world. His body was listless like cotton and his sunken stomach that had not had lunch grumbled. “I need to find a peddler’s inn, but I don’t have any money…” he muttered to himself, as he stopped for a moment. 5
The night grew dark. The streetlamps grew brighter. An ox cart carrying a heavy load passed before him, creaking under the weight of its burden. Unsim felt as though the countless stars flickering in the wide, indigo sky above were watching his miserable fate. The smell of frying fat from some kitchen turned his stomach. Unsim set out for the main street. A high lantern shone on a sign that read “Hoeryong Inn.” He stood in front of the door. His face was pale under the light. “Should I go in? What should I do?” He didn’t know what to do. Just then, a young man in spectacles walked toward the inn from the station. Following behind him was a man wearing a traditional hat, a woman carrying a child on her back, and several people carrying bundles and buckets. “Go on inside. Are you looking for a place to stay?” asked the young man in spectacles who was carrying a small bundle. Unsim didn’t answer. “Why don’t you go inside? The rooms are warm and the food is cheap, too.” Unsim went in without a word. The inn was divided into two rooms that weren’t very large, but were fairly clean. Lights hung from the center of the ceiling in both rooms. There was a landscape painting on the wall. Unsim ended up sharing the room with the man in the spectacles, as well as the people who had followed them in. Even while he ate his dinner, Unsim was anxious, for he didn’t know how he should pay for his meal. What could he do? What could he possibly do in this situation? I need to find work tomorrow…I need to hire myself out for the day at least… Worries filled his mind that he hardly tasted the food. * It was the spring of 1919, the year of the 3·1 Independence Movement. He had headed for West Gando. He first lived in a small village behind Mt. Baekdu by the Amur River called Cheongsiheo. The rugged mountains, the dense forest, and the noise of the bandits that were utterly foreign to him struck terror into his heart. However, as each day passed and turned into months, he thought less of home and even his terror faded. In his time there, he experienced no trouble, for he was free to roam the mountains, fields, and waters, and free to eat and clad himself as he pleased. Still, his heart grew heavier each day. After arriving in this secluded valley, he hadn’t seen a single page of a letter or newspaper, let alone a friendly face. It was impossible for the people to become his friends. Because his hair was cut short and he could speak Japanese, they suspected Unsim of being a spy in the beginning and whispered amongst themselves. Even the ragged group of ex-soldiers who now did nothing but hunt and roam the mountains came to have a look at him. Most were from Hamgyeong-do, Pyeongan-do, and Hwanghae-do. They had all left because of various hardships. Perhaps they had stolen someone’s money or someone’s woman, perhaps they had been policemen who 6
had embezzled money, gamblers who had been chased out of town, murderers, or soldiers in the army… All kinds of villains had come together to live, forming hamlets here and there, and together, they hunted, raised animals, farmed, and even raided. For these reasons, they had no ethics, no morals, and no education. The strongest was the chief, law, and king. There was a Chinese administrative office, but the so-called police commissioner was an opium user himself while he seized and beat the sellers. Unsim gathered up the village children and told them stories and taught them how to read and write. But they did not understand his teachings. Unsim was perpetually sad. It pained him to think that his robust youth was fading away without meaning. In order to forget his sorrows, he endured the fierce wind to go fishing, meditated in the shadow of a picturesque autumn tree with its leaves turning, or climbed on top of a summit to let out a shout, but the grief lodged deep in his chest did not leave him. The sound of the murmuring stream that gave travelers a sense of direction and the clear birdsong drifting from blue shadows could not satisfy the void in his heart. They only added to his misery. He constantly yearned for a world unknown to him. That autumn when the mountains turned copper, and the fields yellow, Unsim left Cheongsiheo. He left, still wearing his summer clothes that reeked of sweat with a traditional bamboo hat perched atop his head, and a small bundle and cane as his only friend. The people did not look very sad to see him go. They simply stood in their doorways and said, “Goodbye now.” Only one child of thirteen whom he had taught morning and night came and said, “Teacher, please put down your bundle. I’ll carry it for you.” After accompanying Unsim all the way to the Dasaheo pass, which was ten li from Cheongsiheo, the child began to weep, saying, “Teacher, may you travel in peace. Please come back.” Unsim also wept. He wept as though his heart were breaking. He himself did not know why he was weeping. Much later, after rubbing away his tears with his fists, he turned around to find the child still in tears. Stroking the child’s head that was the size of the tail of a deer, he said, “Go on now. I’ll be back soon.” But before he had finished speaking, he started to weep again. He felt as though the scope of loneliness belonged to him, and him alone. “Bakdol, go on now. I’ll be back next month.” “Only if my father had said yes, I would go with you…” With that, the child started to weep again. Unsim also wept. The tears of these young men were the tears of eternal farewell. He struggled on alone across streams and over mountains, the sound of his cane dragging against rocks along the path was the only noise that stirred the tranquil air in the silent forest. He wandered without aim. When the sun set, he slept and when the sun rose, he walked, and if there was a house, he begged for food, and if there was no house, he ambled along. He ate grass roots and spent many nights sleeping in the dew.
Around this time, resistance army units were rising up like swarms of bees all over Manchuria, engaged in skirmishes to expand their territories. Many innocent people accused of being spies were shot to death by the resistance, but many actual spies died as well. Unsim, too, was captured by the resistance and was locked up for three days until he was released through someone he knew in the force. But Unsim, who was still a vigorous young man, did not stop there. He joined the independence forces. He strapped on a backpack and took up a rifle. For a little while, he was happy to be without any thoughts. But with each passing day and each passing month, he grew tired of life in the army. As always, he looked towards the highlands and wept. He wept, holding a dream in his heart. The following year, after the Gando massacre, the resistance forces lost strength and were scattered in all directions. Even Unsim’s unit disbanded. Unsim, now without backpack or rifle, was back to roaming without purpose. His hair grew past his ears and the hair on his dark face was coarse. His eyes were always bloodshot. There were times he became so intoxicated with opium that he collapsed in a Chinese opium den, and there were times he braved the wind and rain to go hunting. But because of the pain of being in a foreign land, his mind that tried to find peace turned instead into the brittle willow branches bending to the autumn wind, and he realized that his grand hopes that had longed to pierce the sky were slipping undetectably into an abyss. He thought about his life and wept. He even ran senselessly, shouting for no reason. In this way, he wandered without purpose and returned to his homeland. I had no place to go and I had no one who awaited me, but I’ve returned to my homeland. Something I can’t name has drawn me back to this place. But where do I go from here? * On the third day Unsim arrived in Hoeryong, a sign hung on the door of the Hoeryong Inn. It read: “Na Unsim—paperhanger.”