Lee Ho-Chul, translated from the Korean by Andrew Killick and Cho Sukyeon
EastBridge Press: 250 pp., $22.95 paper
Lee HO-CHUL, born in 1932 in what is now North Korea, is one of South Korea’s most important authors. Here he tells the story of his conscription into the North Korean Army and life as a POW. In 1950, Lee is in high school. Political zealots are the class clowns; throughout, it’s those who, in their desperation, spout the Communist line who are most scorned by classmates or fellow soldiers. One day, several students are issued uniforms and told to join the troops. They don’t even have time to tell their families. Soon comes their first bombing: “A ton of iron falling vertically above your head makes a sound as piercing as if the whole earth were about to crack apart, and seems to reach your eardrums not through your ears but through some other orifice.” Lee’s observations are clearly, poetically rendered (a young officer is “handsome as the full moon”). He retains the youthful sense of not knowing where you’re going or what will happen to you. “If the new world ... was simply a matter of hanging placards and portraits of Stalin everywhere ... if all there was to it was substituting Russkies for Japs -- well, what was so earth-shattering about that?” Degrees of bourgeois affiliation are scrutinized at length, as if these small matters could help explain the war. In the end, Lee’s literary instincts save him. One night when the POWs are lined up in front of a firing squad and pleading for their lives, he gazes, inexplicably, upward: “Wow, look at all those stars in the sky,” he shouts. “It’s amazing. It’s really amazing.”
The Good Man
Edward Jae-Suk Lee
Bridge Works: 248 pp., $21.95
Edward JAE-SUK LEE is a Korean American from Kansas. This stunning novel is about a soldier, Gabriel Guttman, who returns 40 years after the Korean War to the Montana ranch where he grew up. As a young man, he left his sweetheart, Emily Cottage, filled with a sense of duty that was quickly replaced by regret. “We are made of our pain,” one character declares, and this idea is the taproot of the novel. Gabriel’s memories -- of shooting women and children, of lines of refugees on dusty roads -- blend with the present. He appears on the doorstep of an elderly Korean woman he had brought home with him many years ago, when she was a pregnant refugee. Emily is long dead, and Gabriel, with the help of the woman’s 16-year-old daughter, tries to recall what happened in the years since his first homecoming; his memory has been shredded by a bullet that pierced his brain in a suicide attempt. The novel’s format is a kind of untelling, a tale revealed layer by layer as the narrator’s memories return. There’s a hint of Willa Cather and of “Cold Mountain,” but the ghostly presence of the Korean War, all the more senseless for coming so soon after World War II, fills the novel with an eerie existential light, a randomness the most robust plot cannot contain.
Lydia Cabrera, translated by Alberto Hernandez-Chiroldes and Lauren Yoder
Bison Books: 170 pp., $16.95 paper
“The moon is cold. Cold is white. The man who went to the moon turned white. And that was the first white man, the father of all white people.... There’s a reason for everything.” And everything has a voice in these otherwordly fables. The earthworm wins the hand of the princess with his fine voice. The beer goes straight to the hare’s head and scrambles “the message the moon had entrusted to him.” Everything is not only alive, it’s popping. Lydia Cabrera (1899-1991) was an ethnographer living in Havana. In 1930 she met Oddeddei, a sorceress, and began her journey into the supernatural world of Afro-Cuban culture. This is the first English translation of stories she recorded in Yoruba, Ewe, Bantu and Spanish. “Never had casseroles been so female or so passive; never had water jugs been so sexual with their hips and their hands resting on their hips; nor had earthenware ever been so placid or had such a paunch.” In short, mind-blowing.