A lost war, a lost book, a lost writer…Richard E. Kim

Penguin Classics has recently brought back to the public eye Richard Kim first and highly acclaimed novel ‘The Martyred’.
After being rejected by a dozen or so publishers. George Braziller picked it up for publication in 1964.
And then the fireworks of celebration began: the novel was an instant success and stayed on the ‘New York Times Best Sellers List’ for almost a half year. Nominated for a National Book Award, it was quickly translated into 14 languages.

Kim dedicated his first born literary effort to Albert Camus. The French Nobel prize winner for literature’s spirit is discernible in ‘The Martyred’, but the genius of the tale of the whys and wherefores of the killing of 13 Christian ministers in North Korea before the US UN led troops hasty withdrawal to the 38 parallel when Chinese volunteers entered the fray, is ‘sui generis’ Kim. The narrative goes beyond war and examines with shining brilliance the human condition of loyalty and betrayal and the grey shadows of existence.

Critics of the day, and even now, hailed Kim as a Korean Camus and some as a Korean Dostoyevsky. Among those praising Kim was the British writer Graham Greene.
In 1968 followed his second novel ‘The Innocent’, and in 1970 ‘Lost names: scenes from a Korean boyhood’, which University of California press put out a 40 anniversary issue. And then silence.

On 23 June 2011 at its Thursday evening book chat, the New York Korean Society invited the Korean American writer Susan Choi to discuss the re released ‘The Martyred’, as part of its year long commemoration of the 60 anniversary of the Korean War, which remains until now without a final resolution, but frozen in place by a 1953 armistice agreement. Among the attendees were Kim’s widow Penelope, his sister, brother in law, and niece and his son David.
The choice of Choi as speaker was both a fortunate and unfortunate choice. Penguin classics had invited her to write forward to ‘The Martyred’. She [born in 1969] spoke of how her generation’s complete ignorance of Kim as a writer, the especially since the rise of feminism and ethnic studies cut the cloth of the day according to gender and the micro examination of one’s ethnic navel. The day went to, say, a Maxime Hong Kingston and an Amy Tan than to a male writer and to writing of the suffering and the marginalisation of the Asian in America. And her late discovery of Kim stressed the void of a generation’s neglect of one of its great writers and a missing part of a literary heritage.
Choi spoke rapturously of Kim as a writer but owing to her own admitted ignorance of the man had little else to say.
And then the spotlight during the question & answer time shone of Mme. Penelope Kim: she lifted with a generosity the veil on her husband’s silence and his life and the debt Korean let alone American literature owes this gifted man.
Not only did he teach but had turned literary agent, he was able to get the South Korean government to honour copyright and royalties on books translated into Korea; he recorded hours and hours of talks on Korean television and radio; and what’s more he followed the lives of the Korean diaspora in the former Soviet Central Asia. In fact, two novels of his, written in Korean, remain untranslated: one relates the story of Koreans in Siberia.
Born into a Christian family of some means in Hamheung in today’s North Korea, Kim’s family fled South, losing land and moderate wealth, but never the stark memories of exile. For Kim, it was a double forced removal, one by the Japanese colonizer and second by the Communists. Until his death, he remained anti Communist and although he could as an American citizen never returned to where he was born.
And yet, his own ‘silence’ may also contributed to his reputation’s falling through the cracks. Many university libraries have withdrawn his books from their collections, save possibly ‘Lost Names’. That book is more widely read in secondary schools, it seems. Public libraries have no loanable copies.
The re release by Penguin Classics of ‘The Martyred’ should refurbish Kim’s neglected reputation as a significant but minor 20 century writer. Its publication should go beyond US borders, thereby permitting a newer and younger public worldwide the opportunity and the pleasure of getting to know Kim. Will his second novel ‘The Innocent’ which deals with the Colonels coup in 1960 which brought Park Chung Hee to power be re released? There is a market for it: the sudden interest among scholars and the US Korean clerisy’s nostalgia for dusting off and rescuing the dictator’s reputation should be a factor in its republication.
Again the Korea Society has done a good deed. However, the evening would have been more lively had it tried to have Choi interview Mme Kim, and thus broader our horizons and our understanding of Kim the writer, the husband, the father, and the man.
Saying this, Kim wrote of the Korean War. In the US, it is called ‘the forgotten war’ and for the plain and simple reason, it is a war that has never ended. It, too, has fallen from the US imagination and experience and lack of political will to ending it with a peace treaty. It is a deep and open wound for the US, South and North Korea, a psychological scar which runs perhaps to the heart of Kim’s ‘The Martyred’.
[‘The Martyred’ is available in e book format and in hard copy. GuamDiary strongly recommends it.]

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