The next book I’m going to look at is The Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sukryeol Choi (최 숙렬의 떠나보낼 수 없는 세월), which I believe has also been translated into English under that title. The literal translation would be something like The Time When You Can’t Let Go, so the official title is a pretty close approximation of the meaning. Of course, I’m reading the Korean language original since that serves the purposes of this blog better. This book was originally written in 1991, and it is 253 pages long. It looks to be a young adult novel based on her own family history fleeing what later became North Korea. You can get a copy here in Korean (I think they also sell the English translation somewhere at this site, too):
The book is split into ten chapters with numbered titles only and has some front and back matter, too, along with some really nice black and white illustrations. In the preface for Korean readers, the author notes that her American students in a class she taught twenty years ago asked about her life in Korea. However, she had fearsome memories of barbed wire that made it too painful to discuss. Although her students demanded she write about her life, she only started writing this book after her husband died suddenly.
Chapter 1 begins in the spring of 1945 in a garden with an old pine tree. We are introduced to the author’s grandfather and a mention of the sound of gunshots and the Japanese in Pyongyang’s Kirimri district. The inhabitants of this area have a fiercely cold winter in their hearts in spite of spring’s coming because of Japanese oppression. At this point in Korean history, Japanese colonialism was only about four months away from ending. The Japanese would surrender to the Allies in August of that year, effectively ending their rule in Korea.
The author explains her brothers’ names all include the character for “spring” using the Chinese pronunciation in Korean for the word – like Japanese, Korean has a parallel system to pronounce hanja: the hun (訓) pronunciation that is a native Korean word, and the eum (音) pronunciation that is borrowed from Chinese. She has three older brothers, Hanchun, Jaechun, Hyeonchun, and a younger brother, Inchun. She describes all of the different types of spring they are named after.
The men’s quarters of their house looks out onto the walled garden. The author’s grandfather invites her to go sit under the pine tree and meditate with him, but her mother wonders why he wants to all of the sudden since it’s cold out. Her grandfather says his idea to go out into the garden isn’t something sudden, he has been thinking about it awhile, and today the Japanese soldiers can’t lock him in. Then he goes out to sit under the pine tree as planned.
The next few pages describe the tranquil scene with her grandfather sitting under the tree in the sunlight-filled garden. The author watches him as he conducts his Zen meditation there. She eventually goes out to sit beside him under the tree. The village ladies call her grandfather “the patriot grandfather” or “the scholar grandfather.” He wrote letters and poetry in Chinese characters, which the author studied with him. He also owns very old Chinese classical books. Her mother works in a sock factory that is apparently in a wooden building near their home, and she would send word to her grandfather if the Japanese police were coming around since it was illegal for them to study hangul and Chinese characters. When the author was eleven, she was forced to go to Japanese school. Her family was waiting for the war to end so they could stop sending her there.
While the author and her grandfather are in the garden meditating, the head of the Japanese police named Narita enters the garden since the door is open. His manner is cold and arrogant. He asks why they haven’t yet gone to pay their respects at the Shinto shrine. Her mother answers him in Japanese and promises they will go immediately. One of the factory younger women Hyewon comes by every day to talk with the family early and is there shortly after the soldier. Hyewon and the author’s mother discuss the Japanese and their odd belief that their emperor is a god. They are interrupted by an older woman named Tiger who talks about how the war will be over soon and the Japanese removed. A younger woman named Okja arrives and sits down with them.
When the bell rings at the factory, the author goes with the women to work, feeling a bit of resentment toward her younger brother for the time he gets to spend with their grandfather. The women at the factory tell her stories, and the factory engineer is the only male among the workers. The engineer is rather young and handsome, while the author’s mother is considered one of the village beauties. He acts as a father figure for their household since their father is absent.
This chapter is a mix of nostalgia for the past and a portrait of the tight-knit village community with acknowledgement of the oppressive tendencies of the Japanese colonial soldiers, who trample her grandfather’s flower garden. The author spends her time reading her grandfather’s traditional Chinese books while her younger brother studies his mother’s fairy tale books. At one point, the author and her mother contemplate her grandmother’s silver hairpin, and the chapter ends with them anticipating the end of the war.
Chapter 2 skips ahead to June when the author goes with Tiger and her mother to a convent where her sister Teresa lives. Teresa was the firstborn among the children of their household, and she became a nun when when the author was very young. The author is eager to meet with her and the other sisters at the convent, which is a little dangerous since the Japanese police issue very harsh punishments regarding participation in their Shinto rites. The women ask the prioress to pray for the defeat of the Japanese in the war.
Back home, the author and her family have a small birthday party for Hyewon. The first half of this chapter paints a warm portrait of the family living day to day. Then Officer Narita intrudes on this domestic scene by stopping off on his patrol with his men during dinner. After disrupting the birthday party, Narita sends two Korean collaborators to the house the next morning to chop down their favorite pine tree. The chapter ends with a scene of the author sitting in the garden by the pine tree stump with her younger brother Inchun.
In chapter 3, the story continues the next morning when the children go with their mother and Tiger to see their grandfather, who is sick and has taken to his bed. He hasn’t gone out to the garden to meditate and looks gaunt and pale. When they go to his room, he tells their mother to take out his box of old photos to teach the children about the past. They look at black and white photos showing how he was a scholar decades before and studied in China. They also learn that when the Japanese took over that he was forced to cut off his topknot.
In other photos, the children learn that their grandfather was part of the independence movement in Manchuria, which was where their parents married. The family produced a newspaper in Hangul there. Her mother and father were also photographed with a number of people dressed in Chinese clothes. Her mother points out a Chinese friend named Ling who taught her Chinese. Other photos show their first four children born in China, including Teresa and the family’s three older brothers, Maryknoll priests and going caroling. Some of the children were baptized there. They had to leave China when the war started, though they didn’t really want to. Here is a short history of the Maryknoll order’s activities in the Far East:
Specifically, the author’s parents and grandfather left Manchuria after the Japanese burned their house down.
Her grandfather remains bedridden through the end of the chapter due to some problem with his legs. Everyone is angry and crying, particularly at the Japanese soldiers and Officer Narita, and the old pine tree stump becomes a focal point. As the story creeps toward the war’s end, we’ll see how their family’s fortunes change.
Part one of a two part series.