Forgotten Reflections by Young-Im Lee is described on its cover in small script as “A War Story.” True, a large part of the story is centered around the Korean War for which an armistice to end fighting was signed in 1953. As many leaders in modern day governments point out, there has not yet been an agreement to end the war signed. Much of the action described in the book takes place in a time between the Japanese Army leaving Korea after WWII and 1953. The overall context is a story about people surviving a war, extreme hardship and poverty, and constant hunger while at the same time living a life of social relationships that include love, a sense of duty, and faithfulness to one another.
Ji-Iseul is the center of the story. When the reader first meets her, she is being moved to a senior citizen hospice. She can no longer be cared for at home because the steady advance of Alzheimers requires more constant care than members of her immediate family can provide. One member of that family, granddaughter Jia, remembers a time when Iseul could tell stories, a time when Iseul was coherent. She helped Iseul move to the new community and remembered to bring Iseul’s guitar to the new home. When Iseul was not staring out a window at city lights, she would stare at the guitar and occasionally mutter a name, Yeong-Hoon. The granddaughter found a very old letter secreted inside the guitar that matched some similarly old documents at her home. Further examination of the documents and reflection on the names Iseul muttered led the granddaughter on a journey to the village where Iseul grew up in order to find out more about her family history.
The village where Ji-Iseul grew up didn’t have a name, only a nickname, the “Wastelands.” Life was bleak and centered on survival. Rice and anything that could be eaten with it or in place of it occupied villagers’ thoughts. A barter economy allowed Iseul to trade firewood she collected for food from a house that served as the village restaurant. Her father was a carpenter as she would later be, although her skills advanced to the point of making guitars rather than furniture. There is a fascinating account of how she came to make paper, a skill she would years later use in support of anti-communist military factions during the Korean War. The story of Ji-Iseul’s life takes priority over a story of military battles even though she is involved in some of them.
Ji-Iseul, Jung-Soo, and Yeong-Hoon are three characters who drive the story. They, their discourse, and behavior with subordinate characters reveal much about social relationships. The Korea described is a stereotypical patriarchy. Iseul’s father was proud of her because she could and was willing to work like a man. The person making paper was looked down upon through expressions such as “At least I am not a papermaker.” At various points in the account Iseul’s gender was questioned. In other words, she wasn’t beautiful; at one point in the account she was described as “averagely attractive.” And she along with almost everyone in the village were desperately poor. Except for Jung-soo. He was the son of a man who profited from the Japanese occupation of Korea by acting as a tax collector for them. Taxes were to be paid in rice and Jung-Soo’s father made sure villagers paid as much as possible. Not all taxes collected went to the Japanese. Enough was kept back to build the finest house in the village. Named the “Golden Palace,” it had electricity, the only house to have it. Jung-Soo lived there with his personal bodyguard and servants. His father was gone a lot; some villagers thought he might be engaged in secret political and economic activities with communists in North Korea. Nevertheless, money talks and when Jung-Soo’s father visited the village, his word was law. When he was not in residence Jung-Soo, with the help of his bodyguard, was in charge. Heong-Yoon is our third central character. A helper in the furniture shop of Iseul’s father, he was betrothed to Iseul in an arranged marriage. Readers will get the impression that the mildly crippled Heong-Yoon always loved Iseul and wanted to remain in a close relationship with her even when he saw signs of romance between Iseul and Jung-Soo.
This is a novel of sadness, resignation, and bleak despair. It is filtered through an ill-defined cultural screen that the author describes after the end of the story. Young Im-Lee writes that she is not a typical Korean. She left the country one year after her birth for the Philippines. Her BA is from a Korean University, her MA is from the UK, she lives in Seoul, Korea. As a multicultural citizen of the world, she has received criticism for not being Korean enough and for being too Korean. Her reflections and disclaimer after the end of the story are valuable in explaining how the characters of her novel behave. This is not a book I would have expected if it were written by a Korean in the Korean language and then translated into English. At the same time, I would not expect a book like this to be written by a US-born Korean with only outside knowledge of the country. It would be good to pay attention to the author’s afterwords.
This is not a happy book; I cannot think of the ending as a good one. There is so much gloom in the story that a reader might feel it is time to just give it up and go to the Han River bridge. What follows are a few of the passages that evoked the most empathy or sympathy from me.
In a reflection on war, Iseul thinks about how much she wants things to return to “before the war.” Hyeong-Soon answers ““Before this war, the Japanese were here. Before the Japanese, the Chinese had always been on our doorsteps. How far back should we go? Goryeo, Joseon Dynasties?” (p.264).
Here is an observation on Alzheimers: “The mind is a ruthless thing, wasting away quickly, but just slow enough to be aware that something is amiss.” (p.127).
This is Iseul at the end of her life in the hospice: “She saw herself as she was—a bitter old woman, dying alone as her children toiled and toiled out there in the bright lights for their own children to one day toil some more.” (p.492).
This is from the author’s closing remarks on Korea: “We are a nation of survivors who somehow made it out the other end and kept going, just waiting for the next bomb to drop.” (p.511).
This is also from the author’s closing remarks on class and status: “We are a nation running on the fumes of men who think their status, age and money is wisdom incarnate.” (p. 517). This observation is not confined to Korea. (My note).
SUMMARY: This is a long book worth reading carefully. Readers might be amazed at the resilience of ordinary people forced to rely on themselves in the face of horrible events that seem to go on without end. Readers might also be appreciative of their lives in less restrictive societies.