Many of us have learned only the basics of Korea. It is mentioned in our history books briefly but do we really know anything about this region of the world. Mark Sampson has given us an eye-opening insight into Korea with his novel Sad Peninsula. And in it has given us a bit of perspective about ourselves.
You don’t so much see Seoul’s neon as you taste it, like bright hard Christmas candy, reds and greens sprayed out across the city as if fired from a cannon. As our cab races northward toward the lugubrious Han River, I figure I’ll never get used to this non-stop showcase of luminance. a landscape choked with discos and Starbucks outlets and soju tents on the sidewalks, with street-side barbecues and 7-Elevens that will let you drink beer on plastic furniture set up out front. As we settle in for the ride, Rob Cruise begins his complaining. He been a flame thrower at the urinal for several weeks now. The nurses at the clinic near our school have started recognizing him when he walks in; the pharmacist doesn’t even need to see the slip anymore to fetch him the right antibiotics.
Sampson has written a brilliant yet bittersweet novel here. He has basically two protagonists – Eun-young, a former Korean ‘comfort woman’ who is trying hard to come to terms with her past of rape and violence during World War II and Michael, a Canadian who arrives in Korea to teach English in 2003. Their paths cross through Jin, who is challenging the norms and mores around her as well as Michael’s morality.
On the last day of the journey, Eun-young woke early and found herself wandering the upper deck in a state of near hypnosis. She started to imagine what would transpire once she saw her family again. If her brothers were still alive, they would not be able to look at her. If her mother was still alive, she would fall to her knees at Eun-young’s feet and pour out a symphony of thanks. If her father was still alive, his face would crush up in disgust at the sight of her. And if her baby sister was still alive – well, she didn’t know. Ji-young had only been ten years old when Eun-young, five years her senior, was taken away. Would she have gone through these things, too? It was a question Eun-young had sometimes thought about at night during the quiet times in the camps. Is Ji-young being raped, too? Surely she had been too young. Surely the monsters who had done this would have left her alone.
Eun-young was snapped out of her daze by the sudden blare of the ship’s horn. It rang out in a seemingly ceaseless bellow. Eun-young found herself hurrying to the front of the ship before the horn even stopped, nearly crashing into the rail when she got there. She looked out over the blue-green water. In the distance was the thin line of land that she’d been watching for before. Jags of mountains. Fog. The slightest wisp of rambling green hills. For an instant, she doubted where this place was, where the ship had taken her. Her heart heaved a little. It wasn’t until she could see Pusan Harbour, its long lean piers, its buildings snuggled into the mountains, that she guessed where she was.
This is a frank story told with vivid details. It deals with a lot of desire, hurt and shame. Sampson did a fantastic job with enlightening his readers not only with some of lesser know historical facts about Korea but also with some of the cultural ideals and prejudices that exist there. And in doing so, makes us look at our own failing norms here. A great piece literature that goes beyond what any historical essay or journalistic piece could do.
This is how I’m dealing with the past. By putting one word in front of the other, this thing I once tried so hard to do, this act of aggression against the page, vandalizing it with my thoughts, my voice, my words, my perspective. It’s indecent, it’s arrogant, it’s an act of thievery and narcissism. That’s why I was so terrible at it. I couldn’t muster enough egotism to do it properly. I balked under the responsibility of stealing stories and claiming them as my own. I did not inherit my mother’s pristine self-absorption the way my sister di. I was always the quiet, rumpled guy in the corner who spoke little and was afraid to ask the tough questions. It all seemed like robbery to me. I failed at it; I failed spectacularly. But now, here, on the other side of the world, I’m putting one word in front of the other. I’m crafting a story that doesn’t belong to me. I’m taking these horrific leaps of faith, extrapolating on things I barely understand, filling in the blanks with my imagination, everything I was taught not to do.
And I’m loving every minute of it.
Sad Peninsula by Mark Sampson not only gives insight to the mores of Korea but makes us look at our own values and failures. A brilliant and insightful read.