Korean author Hwang Sok-Yong has been one of the great novelists of modern Korea, a novelist unafraid to speak truth to power even when at great cost to himself. Hwang started writing in 1970 following harrowing experiences in the Vietnam War and has been imprisoned by both the North Koreans and the South Koreans. So he brings plenty of history to what may be his most sweeping novel Mater 2-10 (translated by Sora Kim-Russel and Youngjae Josephine Bae) – a twentieth century history of Korea seen through the eyes of four generations of a working class family.
When Mater 2-10 opens, Jino, a staunch unionist, has begun a sit-in on the top of a factory chimney to protest his sacking and the wholesale sacking of his colleagues. The narrative follows Jino through the many days that he spends on top of the tower but also, very quickly, dips back into his family history. The story then follows the lives and fortunes of the family from his great-grandfather Baekman, through his grandfather and granduncle Ilcheol and Icheol and his father Jisan. All had a connection to the railway that at one time ran from Busan in the south of Korea all the way to Japanese-occupied Manchuria (the title Mater 2-10 refers to one of these locomotives, now a rusting reminder of Korea’s past).
While the story ranges over a century of history, it concentrates on the years of thre Japanese occupation, and in particular the lives and struggles of the brothers. Ilcheol follows his father into the railways and becomes an engineer under the Japanese, while Icheol joins the communist-led insurgency against the occupation. And after years of struggle, the family finds that the end of that occupation and the arrival of the Americans is not much better for them with one explicit form of occupation being replaced by another.
Hwang set out to tell the story of Korea from a perspective that is often ignored – that of the people who built the country and keep its wheels turning. With characters modelled after “the nameless workers who gave body and soul to the small parts they played” he seeks to explore the role of the workers in standing up to the Japanese but then the fact that following their defeat were denounced as communists. In doing so he also exposes the extent of Korean collaboration with both the Japanese and Americans often at the expense of their own citizens.
As with his book Familiar Things, Hawng tells the story in a straight forward but slightly fantastical style with a plot “built from personal, everyday anecdotes, rather than solely historical facts”. Set against the difficult lives of his characters are spirits from the past or visions of the future, that sometimes help and sometimes prepare them for joy or tragedy.
Mater 2-10 is in an epic – sweeping as it does from the early twentieth century to the early twenty-first. But it is a very person epic – focussing as it does on the lives of a family that struggled and strived for themselves, for their children and for their country. Given the increasing popularity of all things Korean at the moment it is sobering and instructive to consider the underlying character that can create a thriving nation out of such sacrifice and tribulation. But also sobering to remember, as Hwang points out, that Korea is still a nation divided. One that he believes can eventually be peacefully reunited.