Farewell Valley
By Im Ch’ŏru, translated from the Korean by Jennifer M. Lee and Jonathan R. Bagley (MerwinAsia, 2016)

Readers new to Korean literature who value historical memory as a gateway to truth, reconciliation, and healing will find Farewell Valley a representation of a nation now best known to the world at large for Hallyu, the wave of Korean popular culture. Trauma greatly informs the history of modern Korea (both South and North), and of the many Korean fiction writers who have dealt elliptically or, less frequently, in graphic detail with trauma, Im Ch’ŏru (also published as Im Ch’ŏr-u, Lim Chul Woo, and Im Chol-woo) is perhaps the most persevering. He is best known for his five-volume novel Pomnal (Spring day, 1997), which recounts the events of May 16-27, 1980, in the city of Kwangju, South Chŏlla Province, in which a popular uprising was put down by Republic of Korea national police, special forces, and regular army troops at the cost of perhaps thousands of fatalities. But his forty-year oeuvre is centered more generally in the trauma arising from the concatenation of loss, departure, and separation that has marked so much of modern Korean history. In addition to the May 1980 massacre of the citizens of Kwangju, Im has dealt with institutionalized torture during the almost three decades of military dictatorship in South Korea; the territorial division of the Korean Peninsula after Liberation in 1945 from Japanese colonial rule; the Korean War; the induction of more than two hundred thousand Korean girls into sexual servitude by Imperial Japan during the Pacific War; and labor unrest. (The last of these topics is referred to obliquely in the novel reviewed here, in the mention of bloody figures in the village of Sabuk: these individuals were coal miners who in April 1980 staged a labor strike and were subsequently detained by the authorities and taken to the county seat, along with family members, and subjected to prolonged torture.) Im’s 1988 novella about a torture operative and his hapless victim, “Pulgŭn pang” (trans. 2009 “The Red Room”), was honored with the most prestigious South Korean award for short fiction and novellas. For the first and only time in the history of this prize, a second story shared the award, presumably to blunt potential fallout from the revelations of government-sponsored torture of civilians during the Chun Doo Hwan presidency.

Farewell Valley is the translation by Jennifer M. Lee and Jonathan R. Bagley of Im’s novel Ibyŏlhanŭn koltchagi. The work employs a seasonal structure reminiscent of Korean traditional vernacular lyrics except that the sequence is autumn-summer-winter-spring instead of the more familiar spring-summer-autumn-winter. Ending with spring is doubly symbolic: spring is stereotypically the season of rebirth and new growth, but in recent South Korean history a season marked not only by the May 1980 Kwangju massacre but also by the brutal police response to the April 19, 1960, Student Revolution followed by the May 1961 military coup and the onset of decades of dictatorship.

The novel is set in a locality aptly named Pyŏrŏgok (Farewell Valley), in Chŏngsŏng County, Kangwŏn Province, one of the more remote areas of South Korea, and more specifically, at the train station there. Train travel has crucial cultural significance in Korea, echoing a tradition of itinerancy marked by the every-fifth-day open market visited by traveling peddlers and by the journeys of performing troupes of entertainers. (The train station is sometimes a showpiece for performances of Korean popular music—witness You Tube videos of Bang Shilli [Pangshiri] and Seoul Sisters, for instance.) Travel by rail is also an infrastructure necessity in a land that is seventy percent mountainous, affording access to localities not served by roads. (Full disclosure: I visited one such locality by train in 1979 during my Peace Corps service.)

The four sections of the novel concern an almost overwhelming series of losses: a boy losing his father, supposedly in a fishing accident at sea; a girl running away from home to become a tearoom hostess and ultimately taking her own life; a child killed by a psychotic father; a husband and new father crushed beneath the wheels of a departing train; a dying father and daughter abandoned by a mother and son during the Korean War; a girl not yet physically mature who is coerced into sexual servitude for the Japanese military in Manchuria during World War Two. All of these victims have a connection with Farewell Valley. Of the protagonists of the four sections, one, Chŏng Tongsu, a young attendant at the Farewell Valley train station and the son of the man supposedly lost at sea, appears throughout. At the end of the novel, Chŏng finally learns the truth about his father: during his compulsory military service he was brutalized by the beatings then endemic in the Korean military and reacted by slaughtering not only an officer who had abused him but also a woman foraging for mountain greens, whom he came upon after deserting his unit. Eventually tracked down, he clutched a grenade to his chest and pulled the pin. A reminder, perhaps, of the vicious cycle of abuse begetting trauma begetting further abuse?

The late Kim Hyŏn, an influential literary critic, described Im’s literary world as “dark and frightening” but imbued with passion that engenders a beauty lacking any pretense of decorativeness. In Farewell Valley we might think of this beauty as the recognition of a presence that has been erased from historical memory by trauma, shame, or political risk. A victim and in turn a victimizer, the army deserter-turned-suicide now occupies a presence in the life of Chŏng Tongsu as the father he never knew. In this fashion author Im reminds us that each of the casualties of the territorial and psychic division of the nation, each of the victims of institutionalized torture, each of the girls taken from their ancestral villages to the “comfort stations” of Manchuria, was someone’s father or mother, son or daughter, brother or sister, fellow or sister villager. For Im Ch’ŏru, historical memory, painful though it may be, is a necessary step toward the recognition and acceptance, the truth and reconciliation, that are foundational for healing and closure.

Credit is due Doug Merwin, a pioneer in the publication of English translations of contemporary Korean fiction, for bringing out Farewell Valley. The translation by Jennifer M. Lee and Jonathan R. Bagley is sensitive and respectful and left this reader, who with Ju-Chan Fulton translated Im’s “Pulgŭn pang” and his story “Tonghaeng” (1984, trans. 1993 “A Shared Journey”), all the more intent on bringing to international attention works of Korean literature that offer a measure of empathy to a world characterized increasingly by hostility, fragmentation, and pathology. Readers of this novel will appreciate the resilience of the Korean spirit that has energized Korean culture on a global scale.

Bruce Fulton

Bruce occupies the Young-Bin Min Chair in Korean Literature and Literary Translation at the University of British Columbia. He is the co-translator, with Ju-Chan Fulton, of numerous works of modern Korean fiction, most recently The Catcher in the Loft by Ch’ŏn Un-yŏng (2019), One Left by Kim Soom (2020), and Togani by Gong Ji-Young (2023); co-recipient, with Ju-Chan Fulton, of the first U.S. National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship for a Korean literary work; recipient of the Manhae Grand Prize in Literature; and editor of The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories (2023).

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