By Bill Marx
This Korean novel dramatizes, with indelible force, the utter dehumanization of women confined to authoritarian patriarchal imprisonment.
One Left by Kim Soom. Translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton. University of Washington Press, 192 pages, $19.95.
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The South Korean novel One Left was difficult to read because of how sharply it presents its horrifying subject matter. Finding a publisher for the English translation of this 2016 volume also proved to be difficult. In his afterword, co-translator Bruce J. Fulton writes that 32 presses passed on the project, even though it had received a 2018 Pen/Heim Translation Fund grant, the second Korean project to be chosen by the endowment since it began in 2003. To its credit, the University of Washington Press published the book in September. But, given the reluctance of American presses, it should be no surprise that One Left has been pretty well neglected by the greater media. Faint hearts predominate, and that is unfortunate. Fulton argues that One Left is a necessary book and I agree, if for no other reason than that it dramatizes, with indelible force, the utter dehumanization of women confined to authoritarian patriarchal imprisonment.
One Left is the first Korean novel about the more than 200,000 young Korean women corralled into sexual servitude by the Japanese army during the Pacific War. Thus it is understandable that this narrative — written by a woman — would show little patience with the therapeutic softness that’s pervaded previous fiction on the subject. Women were kidnapped (some as young as 11 and 12 years of age) from their homes and taken to Japanese-occupied territories. There they were forced to live and work in “comfort stations” that were modeled on concentration camps rather than brothels: victims were forced to sexually service 15 to 50 men daily (the women were rated for their “productivity” — disobedience was punished by a leather leash around the neck). They scrubbed out condoms in between visits. The women were brutally treated and minimally fed and clothed. They were often severely ill and/or physically debilitated — from anemia, venereal diseases, physical abuse, drug addiction, genital mutilation (including having their uteruses removed) — and received little medical attention. One Left is a vision of catastrophe: young women imprisoned and then raped to death.
Prison writing, observes Ioan Davies in Writers in Prison, “is contemplation of death, our own deaths, the deaths we impose on others.” There are exceptions, of course, but most fictionalized depictions of attenuated existence in gulags and death camps reflect the experiences of males. These narratives focus on those caught up on the machinery of forced labor and extreme mistreatment that’s been set up to destroy men. One Left draws on the memories of women survivors to tell a story about a system of incarceration that was expressly created to degrade, desecrate, and murder females. Only about 10 percent of the self-described “comfort women” came home at the end of World War II. Many were killed by the Japanese before the Soviets liberated the “comfort stations” or were killed by others while trying to journey back to Korea. Those who returned found themselves shamed, marginalized, and silenced; many were unable to have children and were disowned by their families.
It wasn’t until the early ’90s that survivors spoke out (238 registered with the South Korean government), but eight decades on Japan has yet to seriously acknowledge its responsibility for crimes against humanity. According to scholar Bonnie Oh’s foreword to One Left, Japan denies “nearly all aspects of the issue, calling comfort women professional prostitutes. The Japanese government has spent more than a half a billion dollars to incentivize its overseas residents and diplomats to engage in obstructionist activities.” In December, 2015, South Korea reached an “oral, irreversible agreement with the Japanese government” that pleases no one.
One can feel the nationalistic anger seething beneath Soom’s risky decision to create a literary hybrid, a combination of fiction and nonfiction. The novel draws on the voices of those who witnessed the events: the end of the volume features footnotes (for each chapter) referring to the testimony of “comfort women.” But One Left sets up an interesting formal tension: an individual consciousness is tasked with articulating the agony of dozens. It is a fable of death-in-life: at the center of the book is the haunted mind of a 93-year-old survivor, nameless until the final chapter. She lives a precarious existence in a broken-down house in a marginal neighborhood slated for redevelopment. She has told no one about her past and lives a shadowy, paranoid, and friendless existence: “She had returned home alive but legally dead because none of her siblings was eager to correct her status in the legal records, and she herself kept postponing the action since the change in status was a time-consuming affair.” She has successfully remained invisible — because of mortification and social hostility — until she learns that the last “comfort woman” is dying. That sense of finality triggers an onrush of memories; the narrator was kidnapped from her rural village (she was out hunting snails) and transported to a Manchurian “comfort station,” where she estimates she had sex with about 30,000 men over a seven-year period. We are given the hellish consequences for her and the women she befriends around her — — but there is nothing graphic or exploitative in these observations. She is brusquely informative, distanced from the trauma that has guided her life: “At any given time her vagina would prolapse and not even a needle could penetrate it.”
“In process of trying not to examine and reveal herself, she has forgotten who she is,” the woman thinks. One Left reads like the stream-of-consciousness of a ghost, a spirit mutilated to the point that she is afraid of accepting her duty to haunt. She is bedeviled by troubling images that call to her sense of empathy: dead stray cats and birds, illegal Chinese immigrants being rounded up for deportation, TV programs on sexual slavery in Africa. The final chapter suggests that she has finally accepted her duty to share her ordeal, to press for justice — though that could be read as a hallucination.
As for the relevance of One Left, look no further than alarming reports detailing that Korean women are currently being forced to work in the sex trade in China. According to the BBC in May, 2019: “Victims are prostituted for as little as 30 Chinese yuan ($4.30; £3.40), sold as wives for just 1,000 yuan, and trafficked into cybersex dens for exploitation by a global online audience.” And just last month a story from the BBC proclaimed that women in China’s “re-education” camps for Uighurs have been systematically raped, sexually abused, and tortured. (China refutes the charges.) That same BBC report warns readers that “You may find some of the details in this story distressing.” Apparently, a number of American publishers feared One Left would be too upsetting for English-speaking sensibilities. But in this novel Soom has given us an invaluable glimpse of a deeply ugly reality. This is the gulag that men have built for women — and they have not stopped.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.