Korea is no stranger to traumatic events. From Mongol subjugation during the Koryo Dynasty to cultural genocide by the Japanese in the twentieth century, Korea has experienced horrors that have affected people long after the traumas have passed. So pervasive have these traumas been that a word has been coined to describe the emotional turmoil resulting from these experiences. Han, a term used to designate an incurable and festering resentment, has become so entrenched in the Korean psyche that it is used to express suffering on both the individual and collective level. In “The Red Room”, translated by Bruce and Ju Chan Fulton, these traumas are brought to light in three stories that depict the pain of individuals struggling to move past the suffering caused by the broader historical forces of the time.
In Pak Wan-so’s story “In the Realm of the Buddha”, the lead character (who remains unnamed throughout the story), must come to terms with the fact that her brother and father were brutally murdered for sympathizing with the Communist party. What makes the situation particularly horrifying is that the protagonist and her mother were forced to witness their murders. Set during a period in Korean history when Communism was demonized for subverting the dominant paradigm, the story explores ways in which people deal with the traumatic effects of civil war and national division. Of particular note is the characters’ reliance on shamanism to exorcise their demons. During the period in which this story is set, there was little, if any, access to modern mental health care as we know it (with the exception of big cities). Shamanism became a way for people to deal with their demons, or what we now call symptoms of PTSD. It is only natural, then, that it play an important role in the story, especially considering the fact that it examines death and its effect on the characters.
Ideological conflict is a prevalent theme in “The Red Room”, the third and final story in the book. Written by Im Ch’or-u, the story examines the harsh ways in which people are interrogated if suspected of subversive activities. Having housed a political dissident in his house for several days, Oh Ki-sop, the protagonist in the story, is practically kidnapped by two mysterious men and taken to a facility to be interrogated. What makes this story particularly interesting is that it is partially narrated by the person who conducts the interrogation. During these segments, the motivation behind his desire to torture dissidents is fully revealed, providing yet another perspective to consider when evaluating the ideological conflict in Korea during this time.
Bruce and Ju Chan Fulton have once again provided us with excellent translations of several notable Korean writers who remain undiscovered in the US. Written during a period of Korean history when civil war and national division had destroyed the nation, these stories reveal the extent to which trauma has shattered the Korean psyche on both an individual and national level.