In Korea, the term ‘the guest’ refers to Smallpox, a western disease that wiped out many hundreds of people across the nation. The local shaman would preform a ritual to exorcise ‘the guest’ by going through twelve rounds that cross between the boundaries of the dead and the living.
The Guest in this novel is not smallpox, but two other foreign intruders – Christianity and Marxism. According to Hwang Sok-Yong, the people in North Korea typically blame the Americans for the horrific atrocities that happened during the war, that lead to the murders of so many people across the country, effectively wiping whole towns and villages out. However, this is not really the case – much of what happened was caused by it’s own people, fighting amongst themselves.
The story is set in the Hwanghae Privince, where the two groups of Korean people – the Christians and the Communists partook in fifty days of terror, committing series of atrocities which still haunt the people today.
Before I started this novel, I knew very little about the Korean War. I’m afraid at the time school was trying to hammer this into my head, I decided to go through a teenage phase of ‘oh what’s the point’ and slept through most of it. The cold war, including the Korean and Vietnam war didn’t interest me the slightest. Oh, the vagrancies of youth…if only I’d known what I know now. Ah well.
I know quite a bit more then I knew before (which is still very little) so it isn’t necessary to have any prior knowledge about the Korean War. This is what I love about novels, is that it introduces you to think you might not have found interesting before and makes you curious, more knowledgeable.
The Guest begins in America with two brothers who are ministers, Ryu Yosop, the younger and Ryu Yohan, the Big Brother. Yosop returns to Korea baring the guilt of his brother’s soul with him. Ryu Yohan was infamous in the Province for his part in the massacres of whole families – women and children. Yosop returns to meet his family once again and has to relive the ghosts from his brother’s past.
The story is told through a variety of narratives that weave through past and present, living and dead. Sometimes these are jumbled together, it isn’t always easy to figure out who is speaking, but then after a while I figured this wasn’t really important. They were the stories of the people who lived and died.
I believed many of these stories were inspired by real people whom Hwang Sok-Yong spoke to before he started to write this book. It is a work of fiction – but inspired by history and true stories.
The writing is simple and elegant. Despite describing many of the murders, the deaths the horrors – it is by no means morbid. The descriptions do not feel diluted, but rather matter-of-fact.
It is a deeply enlightening and well told story about the inner soul of people. I think the moral is, that we must not always blame the outsider for our problems, often our true enemy comes from within.
I enjoyed this book very much and will be looking forward to read something else of Hwang Sok-Yong’s at some point.