Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"Black Flower" by Young-Ha Kim

In general, this story has been told before. In particular, author Young-Ha Kim had his reasons for retelling it in Black Flower

This is a tale of misbegotten folk who were sold a bill of goods about a rich land where they could elevate their lives, erase their present miseries, and live prosperously.

The author's interest here is in the plight of approximately 1,000 Koreans who fled their crumbling kingdom for Mexico in 1905.

After a harrowing three-month journey in which disease overtakes the boat, they are sold to various hacienda owners in the Yucatan Peninsula and bound to a four-year contract.

The group is dotted with aristocrats, thieves, farmers and anything else Korea was producing at the time. Kim (Young-Ha?) makes threads of certain passengers' stories in varying degrees of detail.

There's a young aristocratic women whose scent of deer roe drives the male passengers to distraction, the solitary teenage boy who falls in love with her, a common thief, a disgraced Catholic priest, the last eunuch to serve a Korean imperial court, a reticent shaman, and a slew of former soldiers.

Back-breaking toil for paltry wages spent at the company store, physical abuse, evisceration of their own beliefs by Catholic maniacs, and death for those who escape, are the unfortunate pilgrims' lot.

Young-Ha provides nice historical backdrops both to the simultaneous subjugation of their Korean homeland by Japan (so that they've no place to return to), and the Mexican revolution, which upends the henequen haciendas in which they work and absorbs them in its senseless cycles of murder.

Sent to differing haciendas, theirs is the progress of a mini-diaspora that ultimately extends from San Francisco to Guatemala. Few come out of their contracts with enough money to return home. Some open small shops in Mexican cities. Others marry their indigenous coworkers and begin melting into their new land.

Another band join Mayan revolutionaries in Guatemala and found the nation of New Korea in the tropical jungle. Spoiler alert: It doesn't go well for them.

According to the back cover of "Black Flower," Young-Ha Kim is a popular and respected writer in South Korea. He'd heard the inklings of this story about a boatload of Koreans who disappeared into the Mexican landscape and took on the job of recuperating their memory through this narrative dramatization of their star-crossed plight.

"While I was writing," Kim explains in the epilogue, "I thought of myself as a sort of shaman. The desires of those who had left for a distant place and been completely forgotten came to me like letters in bottles cast into the sea, and I believed that the emigrants directed me to write their stories."

The translation is a straight-ahead, serviceable English stripped of literary device and much poetry. It does not lag, nor get confusing, and successfully imparts an interesting history lesson, a portrait of human cruelty, and cautionary tale for utopian seekers.

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