On a recent trip to Seoul, South Korea–after some sightseeing, and catching up with a former student of mine, Young-Dae Choi, who graciously guided my wife and I about the city’s nightlife—I wandered into the amazing Kyobo bookstore; an enormous shop packed with products, services, and customers. I found myself deeply impressed by the number of people who apparently still read in Korea.
During the 2000’s in Canada, the Chapters big-box bookstore chain first swallowed up all the local small-business boutique bookstores, then cannibalized themselves. In short order, candles, pillows and food gifts squeezed the books into the corner until the bookstore become a ‘lifestyle’ retailer, which was confusing for us luddites who still consider reading an essential part of our lifestyle. It seemed confusing for Chapters too, which underwent brand-change surgery and re-emerged as Indigo. They closed most of their big-box stores and opted for mall placement units. These days, there’s hardly a bookstore in sight in even the largest cities, and inside the Indigo shops you can barely find the book section amidst all the candles, pillows and wooden cheese boards.
In Canada, it seems, the practice of reading has been replaced by, well, whatever one does with pillows and cheese by candlelight.
In Seoul however, books remain important. Korean society places a high premium on education, and is notorious for the pressure placed on young people to pursue it. As well, Korean culture has a rich literary history, and many great works are available in English translations. One of these, is Hwang Sok-Young’s The Old Garden. I picked up a copy in Kyobo and while staying in Korea and later when I settled in for the remainder of my vacation in Japan, I dug into The Old Garden for the second time. I had first read this book in university, in a Korean literature course taught by renowned Korean-English translator Dr. Bruce Fulton. Struck by its power, its tense merging of romance and history, I soon afterward watched a film version, directed by Im Sang-Soo.
In both the book and the film, a political activist, fleeing the violent government crackdown in Gwanju in the late 1980s, hides out with a helpful artist, with whom he finds himself romantically involved. The story oscillates between the moments of idyll they share and the pursuit of the man by government agents, and on to the years following his release from prison and his discovery of the child he had had with the artist. By all accounts, the story is based on the all-too real events which Hwang himself participated in, events from a not-too-distant past that I can still recall from news reports and the gossip of Korean friends and neighbours I grew up around.
South Korea’s amazing transformation from post-war ruin in the 1950s through the period of rapid economic development and modernization under the rule of functioning and in some circles, well-regarded, dictatorships from the 1960s to the 1980s, to its current state of world-class prosperity under one of Asia’s best functioning democracies, is one of the world’s most remarkable stories of growth and transformation and tangible progress. Looking around Seoul now, with all its gleaming and fashionable people, its high-tech connectivity, its futuristic architecture and the ubiquity of consumerism, it’s hard to believe that this country was still ruled by a autocratic government until 1997 when it finally became a legitimate democracy with the election of Kim Dae-Jung, himself once a political prisoner sentenced to death. Upon the advice of, and with a loan from, the International Monetary Fund, he set South Korea on the course toward its current blossoming. Change, when it comes in South Korea, comes quickly. Very quickly.
Above all else, it has been the people of South Korea that have driven this change. From lone, determined activists like the hero of Hwang’s novel, to gatherings of protestors seem an ever-present sight in front of the Seoul government buildings, it is the people of South Korea who worked hard to rebuild the country, and then demanded the change they had earned.
And Korea has had no shortage of political strife against which to protest, and it’s far from being out of the weeds just yet. Only last year, candlelight protests filled Gwanghwamun Square, the enormous central plaza centred on the main avenue downtown that leads to the ancient palace. The citizens wanted their president Park Geun-hye, accused of corruption, to step down. Herself the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-Hee, who served from 1963 until his assassination in 1979, Ms. Park had been the first women to be elected president in the nation’s history. Her tenure, however, was short-lived. The protests worked. And, in a great test of the nation’s democratic rule of law, she was impeached and removed.
As always in Korea, seemingly overnight the old was replaced by the new. In May 2017, Moon Jae-In was elected to office. It’s only now 2018, but he has already managed to help broker the first summit meeting between the North Korean leadership of Kim Jung-Un and that of the United States, under Donald Trump. Where that takes South Korea, or for that matter, the world, remains to be seen, but it’s a startling development considering only a year earlier, it seemed as though North Korea was set on a course toward conflict.
Despite the speed of change and pace of life in South Korea, there is a great sense of languid mellow that permeates Seoul. Maybe its the permanence of the massive statues and palace gates that line the central area of the city. Motionless, timeless, they provide a counter-gravity to the perpetual motion and acceleration buzzing around them. One such statue is the enormous rendering of the revered Chosun dynasty king “The Great Sejong,” situated in the very centre of the city. Rendered with a gentle smile, and seated upon his throne, he holds a book in one hand. Known as the inventor of the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, and responsible for great advances in the country’s culture, including its literature, he looks as though he’s not in a hurry to go anywhere. He just wants to chill out and read his book. Maybe its his gravitas that casts this calm over the residents. It’s not uncommon to find people relaxing in a cafe with a book. Even amidst the frenzy of urban life in one of the world’s most competitive economies, there are moments of peace and reflection taking place. People stop moving, sip a coffee, and they read. In books, one finds the ghost of a culture’s past. Lives are forever preserved; emotions, thoughts and the dreams of the fallen heroes who make a nation are sealed within the words.
Even when the weather is below zero, and snow gives Great Sejong a white hat, there is this peculiar mellow ghost about the place. Perhaps, knowing its history of war, death, deprivation and sadness, knowing that only a year earlier a massive crowd had surrounded the statue to protest Park’s seeming return to the old ways of her father, all gives the city this strange, but comforting haunting. As the main character of the novel, Oh, says after returning from prison to the outside world, even in the winter being once again in Seoul feels like,
“waking up from a nap at the end of a summer day when the sun is setting.”
Maybe old Sejong was onto something. I live in Vancouver, a city that has undergone its own rapid transformation over the past twenty years, albeit one involving not political transformation or regime change, but rather an economic and social revolution driven by real estate development and speculation. And the pace and stresses of life have increased exponentially since I first arrived in the early 90s. I was told then that Vancouver was ‘super laid back,’ a characterization that now seems absurd. Yet there is no patient, benevolent Great King watching over Vancouverites as they buzz about in their hurry to convince themselves theirs is a world-class city, no warm caring ghost to sooth one’s discomfort. Hell, there aren’t even any bookstores. Nobody is reading in cafes, unless you consider checking your Snapchat posting an act of reading. Do Canadians not value their own history, not want keep counsel among their own ghosts?
Change is fast. But maybe, in our hurry to become, we can forget what we have been, and thus forget to be, and forget who we are. It’s clear that South Koreans haven’t forgotten who they are. Reading The Old Garden while in the country whose story the novel depicts was a profoundly moving experience. That, and the people of Seoul, have made me think again about the importance of books, of taking the time to slow down and reflect, to remember, if only to rejuvenate one’s desire to transform the old quickly into the new.