This time I’m going to finish the young adult Korean novel The Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sukryeol Choi (최 숙렬의 “떠나보낼 수 없는 세월”). Chapter 4 picks up with Officer Narita harassing the women and the author’s mother at the sock factory because production wasn’t good that week. The women are in tears, and the author’s mother talks with Okja, Tiger and Hyewon about the problem. The factory machines, such as the knitting machine, are shut down, and the engineer oils them. Inchun and the author bundle the finished socks together. Her mother waits for Officer Narita to return with a change of heart, but he doesn’t show up.
This chapter spans a few days at the factory, though the author sits in her grandfather’s quarters some of the time, too, wondering if grandfather’s Buddha or her mother’s Christian God would help them. At one point, Officer Narita returns to their main gate, startling everyone. He loads the weeping factory women into the truck, telling the author’s mother that the children were too young to come along. He wants them to go pay respects to the Japanese emperor. The children, her mother, Tiger and the engineer stay behind and pray in candlelit room. She asks her mother if the factory women will be coming back.
The next chapter begins early in the morning when one of Officer Narita’s subordinates comes to visit the author’s mother with a notice. She reads over the papers in a daze. This is the order that Inchun and the author will have to start going to a Japanese school. Her mother makes them lunches the next day. Tiger will be taking them, and her mother prepares them with the appropriate Japanese responses; the author hates going, wearing school uniforms and having to speak Japanese. Tiger tells them that their teacher will be Officer Narita’s wife.
When they arrive at school, the boys are lined up on one side of the playground, the girls on the other. The author befriends another girl named Eunhui, and they are forced to sing a song the author hates, which I think is the Japanese national anthem. Mrs. Narita and the school’s Headmaster Watanabe take them to a ceremony honoring the Japanese Emperor, where they ask them to pray for the holy Japanese army’s victory and the “savages’”defeat, I guess meaning the Allies. The children also are called Japanese names in class.
The chapter goes on to describe one of the lessons in class and explains how life in general gets harder for the author and her family. What is interesting linguistically here is the way some of the Japanese used at school is transliterated into hangul with a Korean translation in parenthesis here and there.
Chapter 6 marks the announcement that the war is over. It is August 15th, 1945, not long after a typhoon, and factory engineer comes to tell the author’s family that the Japanese have been defeated. They rejoice over liberation, knowing that the author’s father and the men from the factory will now be returning home, though the bishop won’t let the women leave the convent because it is too dangerous, perhaps because of the political turmoil that will necessarily result from this change in leadership. Teresa has been praying for the men’s quick return home.
They all are impatient for the return of various people. The author’s mother is waiting for their father and three brothers to return. Aunt Tiger is waiting for news on her husband. The factory engineer is waiting for news on the factory ladies whom the authorities took away in the previous chapter. Eventually, word comes to Eunhui’s family that her father died. Then the factory engineer hears that the factory ladies were sent to Siberia where Russian soldiers are raiding villages. They discuss the proximity of the Soviet border and the location of American forces. One day two Soviet soldiers come to their garden and look around the house.
In chapter 7, Soviet troops fill the streets of Kirimri. They stop by the author’s neighborhood and bring the idea that the Koreans are their brothers. One neighbor, Mrs. Kim, sits with a tall blonde haired, blue eyed Soviet woman named Natasha and says this idea means they are all equal. While the author’s mother wants to wait for her father and brothers, they are aware that the Americans and Soviets plan on dividing the country at the 38th parallel to occupy the country. They must prepare to leave for the south in spite of wanting to wait for the rest of the family to join them. However, they have a singing party with Natasha and Mrs. Kim later.
The next chapter begins on a chilly October night with the downtown blanketed with fog. They are waiting for the engineer to return. When he arrives, he has news about the rest of the author’s family. Her three older brothers are safe and have taken a truck to the south. Her father sent them on a rescue mission. Her mother wonders if she can pack up and prepare to leave, but he tells her she shouldn’t, that the truck won’t have room for anything she packs. Tiger is pleased to hear that her sister has received good news about her husband but is anxiously awaiting word of her own husband daily. The story then develops into a discussion of capitalism and communism.
When the factory engineer brings them word of the author’s father’s address in Seoul, they discuss their options. Aunt Tiger won’t leave without word from her own husband, and there is concern about crossing to the south in general. Uncertain if they should go, they consider sending the children to the south first. Finally, the author and her brother Inchun go with their mother to a train station where a guide helps them get on a crowded train. It’s hard to find a place to sit, and the children are hungry. This train ride begins their flight from northern Korea, which lasts through the next two chapters to the story’s conclusion.
I’m not going to get into the details since the book is available in English translation. I’ll just note that the story ends without any strong resolution. One of the last scenes show the two children talking to a soldier about their plans to go to South Korea, but we don’t see them arrive there. The book closes with an author afterword and two maps. Overall, it’s a slice of life look at a Korean family torn apart by international politics that gives some insight into a lesser known time in Korean history.
Part two of a two part series.
Next time: we return to China with a sci fi novel, Seba’s The Breaking Soul of a Thousand Years.