Sun, Jan 14, 2001 - Page 19 News List

A riveting tale of WWII 'comfort women' in Korea

Lee Chang-rae tackles a subjest that few others have successfully attempted. Lee paints a vivid and startling picture

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

A Gesture Life
By Lee Chang-rae
356 pages
Available from FNAC

That anyone should decide to write a novel about the Korean "comfort women" supplied to the Japanese forces during World War II is surprising enough. That someone should come up with a book as fine as this on the subject is a cause for real celebration.

Lee Chang-rae was born in Korea in 1965 and arrived in the US at the age of three. This is his second novel, and it is a major work by any standards. It will come as no surprise to anyone reading it that his first book, Native Speaker, won two important literary awards.

The story is told by `Doc' Hata, a middle-aged American of Japanese origin. He lives comfortably but alone in an East Coast provincial town, and before retirement ran a store specializing in orthopedic devices.

He has adopted a young girl, Sunny, from Korea. Hata has done everything in his power to become accepted by the local community, but Sunny has always resisted his desire for a close family relationship. By the time the novel opens she has rejected him altogether, and moved out to live with what he considers a gang of dissolute youths.

She twice becomes pregnant, and eventually bears a son, Tommy. Because of her poverty, Sunny allows Hata to take the kind of loving care of the boy that she would not let him take of her.

Early on, it becomes clear that Hata has some terrible history, and that this will be progressively revealed. A quick glance at the blurb shows that it will involve the wartime use of Korean enforced prostitutes. Lee's task, therefore, is to develop his revelation of what Hata calls "the black fires of the past" along lines that are relatively unexpected. Needless to say, he manages to do so with ease.

This is a book written with quite exceptional sophistication. Reflection, complex irony, violent action, the movement from the quiet life of a retired man to his terrible memories of the war and back again -- all are handled with the sure touch of a master.

Redemption of the pain in the hearts of the old by the young could be said to be at the novel's center. But things are far from simple, and at times it even appears that wartime horrors are being re-enacted under the spurious guise of peace. The very conditions of human life itself cling to the brooding imagination of this somber writer who, you feel, will not fudge a single moral issue.

Any mention of prostitution generally, enforced or otherwise, can give rise to smirks and knowing glances between men. No smiles are encouraged by this book. The details, such as the camp's "comfort house" itself, with its slatted, body-shaped racks on which the girls had to lie when with the soldiers, and the women's swollen and bleeding genitals after experiencing 30 men in a day, are horrific.

The worst violence, however, comes as an indirect result of actions in which Hata is more closely involved. Slowly the threads of his two worlds are knitted back together. It is revealed, for instance, that he is himself of Korean birth, and was adopted by a Japanese family at roughly the same age at which he later adopted Sunny. His Korean origins are recognized by one of the girls, and she appeals to him for help. Hata's desire to appear wholly Japanese is as intense as his subsequent desire to be completely American, and this competes with his Korean origins as a he begins to develop a strong attraction to the girl.

This story has been viewed 3721 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top