The national trauma
By Lee Chung-joon
Translated by Jennifer M. Lee
(Jimoondang, 5,000 won)
The Korean War (1950-1953) left both physical and psychological wounds to its people. Lee Chung-joon’s “The Wounded” explores the national trauma that continues to haunt individuals who suffer from their memories of the war, and other “hidden” existing traumas that cannot be identified.
A spritless artist, the protagonist receives a letter of invitation of his ex-girlfriend Hye-in’s wedding. Though he still has feelings for her, he easily gives up and lets her go. Having no solid purpose in life, he can’t concentrate on his art, either.
His brother, on contrary, lives an active life as a doctor in spite of his severe trauma. He had participated in Korean War as a solider. For his own survival, he had killed his colleague in order to escape a fatal situation. One day, however, one of his patients, a little girl, dies after a surgical procedure. Penetrated by heavy sense of guilt, he closes down his clinic and starts to write a novel, based on his own personal, traumatic experience during the war.
In his novel, three characters stay in a cave together hiding from indiscriminate bombings. One of the characters, Kim, has his right arm cut off from a severe injury. Kim is constantly sexually abused by his malicious superior, Oh. As the three are running out of food and Kim’s rotting arm creates unbearable stench, Oh tries to kill him. The remaining third character, an obvious representation of the writer himself, is left to decide what to do― whether to save his wounded colleague or give into his powerful superior.
The novel ends there, without a proper ending. The protagonist, who happens to read the novel by accident, writes the ending for him. In his ending, the third character ― the fictional version of his brother ― kills Kim when Oh is not around. When his brother reads what the protagonist wrote, he becomes extremely upset and rewrites it. In his version, the third character kills Oh instead of wounded Kim. By killing the Oh character, the protagonist’s brother eases his own trauma and works as a doctor again.
The protagonist’s brother attends Hye-in’s wedding instead, and runs into real-life Oh there. When he returns home from the wedding, he burns down the manuscript of his novel, realizing his traumatic experience and its legacy is real and still remaining.
The protagonist, on contrary, wonders about his own helplessness. Though he has never experienced the war, he still feels he suffers from unknown trauma. Unlike his brother, he does not have a specific wound to overcome. Yet his sufferings are no less painful than his brother’s.
“The Wounded” successfully depicts wounded individuals who are deeply affected by traumas of different kinds. Both the protagonist and his brother suffer, yet the origin of their pain differs from one another. Their destroyed minds, whether resulted from war or something unknown, reflect agonizing, helpless individuals in their harsh reality and painful memories.
Born in 1939, Lee Chung-joon is one of the most prominent South Korean novelists in 20th century. Ever since his first short story, “Toewon (Leaving the Hospital)” in 1965, he published many highly-acclaimed works including “Seopyeonje” and “Iodo” that later have been adopted into movies. He died of lung cancer in 2008.