Read an extract from the hardback edition of the novel
THEY SAY they feed you first because the well-fed ghost is prettier.’ So observes Hyun
Woo, the lead character in this novel, as he watches his fellow prisoners being
led to the execution chamber. He is serving an eighteen-year sentence for his
involvement in the Kwangju Uprising.
Old Garden, author Hwang Sok-yong revisits the uprising, a popular revolt
that occurred in May 1980 against the martial law imposed by General Chun
Doo-hwan, which resulted in South Korea’s brutal massacre of its own citizens. Surviving
activists went underground. They, like Hyun Woo, were branded as Communist
sympathizers and pursued with vengeance. The Old Garden begins as Hyun
Woo is released from prison and jolted back into a country he fails to
personal experience as a political prisoner lends authenticity to this tale. He
describes the obsessions that can either save or destroy the mind of an inmate
and the way order and routine can be self-imposed as a means of survival: Hyun
Woo measures the exact dimensions of his cell, keeps a precise tally of its
contents, observes the regimen of a successful hunger strike and imagines
carefully following the recipes of Korean dishes.
Woo’s story is juxtaposed with that of Yoon Hee, a painter who helps him hide
from authorities after his participation in the uprising. They live simply in
the village of Kalmae: fishing, hiking, cooking and tending to their garden.
They fall in love. Their Edenic closeness to nature and freedom from artifice
isolates them from the rest of the world, but their idyll is cut short when
Hyun Woo’s photograph appears in newspapers. By this time many of his fellow
activists have been captured, yet despite being a wanted man he decides to help
others who remain in hiding. With a promise to return, Hyun Woo leaves Kalmae,
unaware that Yoon Hee is pregnant with his child. After he is caught and
imprisoned they begin to correspond. At one point Hyun Woo writes: ‘In here,
when a woman finds new life they say she puts her rubber shoes on backwards. I
have too many hours to spend in here so, please, Yoon Hee, I want you to turn
your shoes around.’
two decades later, Hyun Woo learns of Yoon Hee’s death and returns to Kalmae.
In their old house he finds her letters, notes, diaries and paintings: a
revelation of her extraordinary life. While Hyun Woo languished in isolation,
Yoon Hee had expanded her world to include not only motherhood but also a
graduate degree, solo art exhibitions and, most notably, a vital role in the
enduring underground student movement. Fiercely independent and with a
disregard for social norms, Yoon Hee propels the story forward: ‘Art,’ she
writes , ‘what the hell. Will never paint again. Meaningless innumerable
mistakes. The word “mistake” is quite amusing. In Chinese, it means the tracing
of a lost hand. Today, I continue writing the old letter to him.’
pace of the novel is modulated by portrayals of Hyun Woo’s slow acclimatization
to modern South Korea. Yoon Hee’s lively written documents, woven throughout
the book, contrast with Hyun Woo’s quiet, uneasy reservations about his new
surroundings. He sees a country transformed, a government disconnected from its
people, a political system that is corrupt and a citizenry conditioned to be
little more than consumers.
disenchantment is fuelled by his meetings with other surviving activists in
Kalmae, and on the sixth morning he prepares to leave. He packs Yoon Hee’s
notebooks in his bag, taking her words with him: ‘I guess you are an old man
now. Everything that we wanted to protect, the things that we endured so much
for, are shattered now, but they are still shining through the world’s dust.’
one last look back at the village, Hyun Woo moves on to meet his
seventeen-year-old daughter, Eun Gyul.
Old Garden is both a chronicle of South Korea’s modern history and a tragic
love story; the separation of Hyun Woo and Yoon Hee is a metaphor for the
division of Korea. The novel explores the nature and consequences of obsession
– with ideology, art and love. It shows how individual and collective identity
can spring from chaos.
does not shy away from expressing his political views, and though the embedded
references to Western writers and artists that reinforce his opinions can
sometimes be obtrusive, they add context.
Sok-yong’s distinctive perspective originates not only from his personal
experiences as a prisoner and political dissident but also as a day labourer,
student activist, Vietnam War veteran and advocate for factory workers. He
balances the brutality of physical, emotional and mental deprivation with
elegant, poetic and wistful dignity. The Old Garden is an elegy to those
activists who did not survive the Kwangju Uprising, and Hwang reminds the
reader of what is sacrificed when a fledgling country stumbles to establish
itself. He insists that we remember.