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Cutting into the Darkness of Korean Society: Ginger by Cheon Un-yeong

by Naoko Hirabaru August 02, 2016


  • Shinkansha
  • 2016
  • 9784884001155

Cheon Un-yeong

Cheon Un-yeong’s books have been published in Chinese, Japanese, French, and Russian. She was invited to the Saint-Louis Literary Festival after the French edition of her book Farewell, Circus! (Adieu le cirque!) was published by Serge Safran Éditeur in 2013. She stayed in Malaga, Spain in 2013 as part of LTI Korea’s writing residency program. She will stay at the Residencia De Estudiantes in Madrid, Spain later this year.

Soft things change shape according to the vessel in which they are held, and transform to fit their environment. Accustomization is a form of chemical reaction, as well as a manifestation of the instinct for survival. Human existence is originally extreme, sensitive and soft, transfiguring according to time and place. Cheon Un-yeong’s latest book, the fulllength work Ginger, tells of the multipaced contrast between such a “vessel” and the mind and body, whilst also boldly cutting into the darkness of contemporary Korean society.


The story begins with a monologue of a peculiar venom. The speaker, repeating the phrase “beautiful technique,” seems to be urged by a strong impatience as if filled with self-confidence, and it is almost as if his crazed eyes are looking up from between the lines on the page. Yet despite the heartless words, the sentences seem to become embodied with an extreme heat, and even the sour smell of sweat can be sensed. Readers with no prior information will turn the pages following this disturbing and incomprehensible monologue, and in time, little by little, learn the background of this man.


This man, who goes by the name of Ahn, was a shrewd operator amongst security police—inflicting brutal torture upon suspects appearing to be communist spies, however never causing them to die, only to make them “disgorge.” Just as his glory days are brought to an end, intoxicated by torture through this “beautiful technique,” the story suddenly switches to the bright, fresh spring in Seoul.


Soni has just entered university, and she is filled with the hope of her brand new campus life. However, before long, a shadow begins to appear over her sunny days. Her father, from whom she had not heard for a very long time, and who had been the pride of their family, suddenly appears one day, and goes into hiding in the attic. From there Soni and her mother begin to live together with her father, separated just by a single ceiling.


This father is Ahn, the man who had been known as the “torture technician.” The story progresses, told in turn by Ahn and his daughter Soni. Their tales show an intense contrast between darkness and light, and as the daughter begins to learn of her father’s past and seek out answers for herself, the story heads towards new ground, at the extreme of neither dark nor light.


There was a real life model for Ahn: Lee Geun-an, who as a member of the security police maneuvered behind the scenes to detain communists and suppress the democratization movement, and shook contemporary Korean society as the “torture technician.” His fate changed for the worse in 1988, the year of the Seoul Olympics, which were an opportunity for Korean society to take a great leap towards democratization and internationalization. With the transformation of Korean society, Lee became a negative legacy of the dark period, and he spent nearly eleven years in hiding, from the end of 1988 to the fall of 1999. After voluntarily surrendering and spending time in jail, he became a priest. Through his missionary work he began to confess about his past, and was later excommunicated from the church.

Korean audiences will be reminded of the real-life “torture technician” at the outset of Ginger. For those international readers as myself who proceed to read without any prior knowledge, the story is fresh and terrifying, reeking of blood. Yet, the reader somehow feels connected to each of the characters who appear.

The words revealed by Lee Geun-an, the model for Ahn, after surrendering and being imprisoned, intedly demonstrate the nature of himself, of society, and of human beings: “At the time I thought I was a patriot, however now I have become a traitor.”

The world, thought to be a definite and eternal “vessel,” restrains people with great ease, and with the same ease almost disappears. Those who have acclimated to and settled in the “vessels” of the past are incapable of keeping up with changes in these such “vessels,” and are left far behind. It is painful that even despite this, no matter their environment, the instinct to stay alive and protect those they love through any means remains consistent. Yet, who is really able to pull away from the bottom of their heart?

When looking at Ahn and his daughter and wife who harbor him, as well as when following a man tortured by Ahn in the past and burning for revenge, the reader is led to question themselves. While Ahn is one individual, he is also a product of the military dictatorship. If born under different circumstances, he may have led an ordinary life. Or, if he had been a completely pure and good person, he may have disappeared from this world long ago. If you were driven into extreme circumstances, how would you transform? If forced to live in hatred and revenge, how would you take action? This tale is about universal aspects of human beings, transcending nations and regions. It is about neither justification nor condemnation. Combining fiction modeled on reality, it sublimates into a literary investigation into human nature, beyond good or evil.

The author Cheon Un-yeong writes in the afterword that while Lee was the model, the story which appeared as time passed was “not his story,” and was instead an opportunity to learn more about herself. Ginger is something you may wish to evade at times, yet at the same time, Cheon tells that the title was selected to speak of an existence sharpening the five senses.

This book novelizes a serial published for fifty days on the website of Changbi Publishers, which generated great interest domestically. As well as the courage of using taboos of modern history as material and directing a piercing gaze on contemporary Korea, the objective perspective and seeking out of clues to question the human existence within could be said to be a force pioneered by this particular generation.

The Japanese translation was published in April of this year, and is now displayed at the new release corner of the Korean literature section within bookstores. Translator Hashimoto Chiho praises the author’s “capacity for challenging depictions,” and in this work, the pen of Cheon Un-yeong is alive in telling of human beings and memory, through body and flesh. Not only this, the writing could also be said to be exceptionally precise. As the author tells of the man known as Ahn, she is also indeed sharpening the five senses. 

by Naoko Hirabaru
Culture Writer, West Japan Daily

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