November 2012

Christopher Merkel


All Just a Little Bit of History Repeating

Epic. People were saying that for a while. An epic ride. An epic climb. An epic concert. Epic meals for the foodies. And the most epic of the epic: the epic dance battle. Epic, that is, until the inevitably epic fallout, after which the term had been so overinflated that epic just sounded kind of lame. Still, there are proper epics, the elements of which were enumerated for us, probably for the first time in high school, when we took Classical Humanities or read Beowulf in British Literature: a hero (an epic hero) who performs deeds of almost superhuman (epic) valor and courage; a vast setting; supernatural intervention; and a sustained, high (epic?) tone. In other words, your dance battle wasn't actually all that epic. Alcohol might, arguably, be supernatural intervention, but your being drunk didn't mean that the rest of the people believed that you could breakdance. Epic fail, man. (Ugh.)

I would, however, agree that the novel Black Flower by Young-ha Kim is epic. It is, indeed, "an epic story based on a little-known moment in history," just like the promotional copy says. It has a decent hero in Kim Ijeong, the orphaned peddler's assistant who turns Villista revolutionary before ultimately promulgating the formation of the short-lived nation of Guatemalan New Korea. And the little known moment in history that is Ijeong's heroic moment carries Ijeong and 1,032 other Koreans from their politically embattled homeland during the final stages of the Russo-Japanese war to the Yucatán, where they work as sharecroppers at the mercy of the Mexican hacienda system until the outbreak of revolution. There are appearances by the virgin goddess of Mayan Catholicism as well as by shamans and spirits of the Koreans' native religious tradition. There are curses and crucifixions. New Korea is founded at the site of the Mayan pyramids at Tikal. Fucking. Epic.

But for me, the epic nature of Black Flower lies not (exactly) in its narration of those Koreans' epic moment, but in its illumination of the other moments in wider world history that frame that particular epic experience. The Russo-Japanese War (preceded a decade earlier by the Sino-Japanese War) and the annexation of Korea by the Empire of Japan (ostensibly in response to the colonization of Asia by the Occidental powers). The legacy of Spanish New World colonization and its establishment of a cruel system of indentured servitude that led to a people's revolution in Mexico at the same time as the Korean political nation officially disappeared. The support of the capitalist democracies for the Mexican government that supported the hacienda system (as well as for the governments that supported similar systems throughout Latin America). For Koreans, Young-ha Kim's novel should very well be a reminder of the resilience of the Korean people during a modern historical moment when the persistence of the Korean nation seemed most threatened. But for readers of the English translation by Charles La Shure, the novel might simply be a very revelatory introduction to the nations and to the people's battles that provide the backdrop for Young-ha Kim's story.

Unfortunately for his epic Korean story, Kim might subject his characters too much to that greater history. What happens to the 1,033 Koreans in Black Flower does have its basis in fact. But as the author admits in his final note, "Sources were scarce, and those that I could find were vague." I would understand a desire on the part of the author to conform to more or less to established historical truths. But to the extent that he takes liberties in creating and developing the stories of his characters (which, given the vagary of his sources, we can only believe that he must have), perhaps he should have taken more. His characters aren't without emotion, but the consideration of their emotions is ultimately superficial. Kim's orphaned peddler who becomes a revolutionary nation founder, his fallen aristocrats, and his impoverished former army officers, they are, perhaps, representative of the Korea that the boat called Ilford left for the promise of something better in Mexico in 1905, but as literary personalities they are flat, uninspired. They act -- and sometimes demonstrate almost superhuman courage and valor -- but their actions sometimes read as simple filler for the sections of the book that develop the greater historical narrative.

I wonder, though, if that isn't just part of the epic. It's on the list: the sustained, high tone. It seems that Young-ha Kim might have felt too strongly the constraints of his role as objective omniscient narrator. He describes the wretched living conditions of the Koreans on the Ilford and presents their most intimate interactions with the same equanimity and easy melodrama with which he describes the Japanese annexation of Korea or the movements of the armies commanded by Villa and Zapato throughout the different stages of the Mexican Revolution. And I think, too, that Kim did keep his epic role carefully in mind. He describes some words of the shaman who boarded the Ilford to escape the spirits that kept him as a shaman in Korea: "[It] was both a curse and a prophecy. Yet there was not a single person in the storehouse who understood it. When this Cassandra of the Yucatán foamed at the mouth and passed out, Ignacio and the overseers locked the doors of the storehouse, went home, and threw themselves on the bed." (If the book includes other ancient allusions, I didn't read carefully enough to catch them.) General Obregón and the Korean ex-soldier who becomes his barber in Mérida after he's finished his contract at the hacienda speak with the same voice. There's little, if anything, that distinguishes the presentation of Kim's fictional personalities from his presentation of the historical ones.

And, sure, that might make for good epic. As I've said, I agree with the publicists that Black Flower is exactly that... that is, epic. But I can't say that a good epic story necessarily translates into a good novel. Black Flower, I thought with increasing frequency as the story progressed, might have been better as the outline for a television miniseries, which I also can't deny could have turned out to be remarkably epic -- even if not great.

But maybe that means that I should be even more appreciative of the translation. Had Young-ha Kim not set out to write this epic side story to modern Korean history (whether that be better or less well known to the rest of the world), there wouldn't be this particular telling of early twentieth century world history to present to readers of the book in English. And that history, as it's told in Black Flower, is very much a people's one, whether or not those people are specifically Korean, Mexican, or Guatemalan Mayan. Obregón's barber cautions Ijeong when the two Koreans cross paths after having fought against each other in the Battle of Celaya: "No matter what we might do, this is a revolution of a nation not our own. Whichever way it may go, it is best to leave it up to them." For Ijeong, however, the epic people's hero, the loss of his own nation, first by physical separation and then by diplomatic fiat, has made him especially receptive to the native Mexicans' cause -- not to mention his esteem for the revolution as manifest in the individual personality of Pancho Villa.

The founding of New Korea in the jungle of Guatemala is promulgated by Ijeong based on the principle that "we need a country in order to have no nationality." As Koreans, Ijeong and the few dozen mercenaries who are with him in the jungle fighting for the revolution in Guatemala are, at that point in history, officially Japanese. To become Korean again -- or just to defy having the decision of their nationality handed down to them -- Ijeong and the few dozen Korean mercenaries with him in the jungle fighting for the revolution in Guatemala annex Tikal.

And the epic of Black Flower turns toward its end with epic portent: "Just as Bak Gwangsu [the apostate Catholic priest] had said, this hot and humid jungle, like a blast furnace, would melt everything in the end. People, contracts, races, nations, even sadness and rage." The fates of those characters that make it to the epilogue to have their fates described are variable. Fortune smiles and then turns a cold shoulder, just as she has throughout the vast time and space covered over the course of the book -- and as we've known her to do throughout the epic history of the epic. "The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind," as it goes in the epic opening of The Tale of the Heike. And history marches on.

Perhaps it's inappropriate, however (or insensitive), given the historical context of Black Flower, to make a comparison with a historical Japanese epic. But the truth is that I don't know another Korean one. And maybe that unfamiliarity was why I might have overlooked something more distinctly (or even, maybe, perchance) Korean in Black Flower. Then again, it takes the author a paragraph of his endnote to explain his title, so it's probably just beyond me. It's an interesting story, though, and for those of us maybe too thick or too culturally shortsighted to garner more, the story makes at least for an interesting review of some moments in modern history perhaps less frequently revisited. Or it could just be that some really promising content got an unfortunately epic treatment. And even if the historical end result goes unchanged, as far as aesthetic considerations go, epic or otherwise, it's not all the same. How's that for an epic conclusion? Ugh.