Anna Kim’s The Great Homecoming, published by Granta Books just before Lockdown is a sweeping tale of friendship and betrayal that explores the devastating impact of the Korean War, Russian and American politicking and the Cold War on individuals, families and cities in Korea and Japan during the 1950s and ’60s.
Anna Kim was born in Daejeon, South Korea but grew up in Austria and wrote the novel in German. She has garnered much praise and recognition for her previous work, and is the recipient of, among other accolades, the Austrian State Fellowship for Literature and the 2012 European Union Prize for Literature, for her second novel Frozen Time. This slick and accomplished translation by Jamie Lee Searle is sure to widen Kim’s fanbase and acclaim, and rightly so.
The novel begins in the present day. A young translator, Hanna, who was born in South Korea but then adopted by a German couple, visits an elderly Korean man, Yunho Kang, who lives in the American missionary quarter in Seoul. When Hanna translates a letter that Yunho has received from America informing him of the death of a Mrs Eve Lewis, he embarks on reminiscing about Eve Moon, or Yunmee – for she is a woman of many names and identities – and his friend Johnny, in Seoul in 1959.
Leaving his birthplace – Nonsan, a village in western South Korea – Yunho had lived in the slums of Daegu for six years before deciding to track down his closest childhood friend Johnny. Flat broke and unemployed, Yunho sleeps on Johnny’s floor in the labyrinthine capital.
“How much to we really know about the people we love?”
Johnny is embroiled with the alluring and mysterious Eve, (known as the “Yankee whore”), who works in a dance school and sleeps with American GIs. The American influence in the capital is keenly felt through the emblems of ‘Lucky Strike’ cigarettes, khakis and Western-style bars and jazz-playing establishments. Themes of isolation and solitude recur through the book, accompanied by the strains of Billie Holliday singing hits from the album Solitude.
The Korean War
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Korea is under Japanese rule and gets caught up in tug of war between the occupiers, China, Russia and then America. The peninsula becomes the epicentre of the conflict, and absolute poverty is widespread. Capitalism during the 1950s does little for South Korea. Chinese and Korean communists actively plot to liberate Korea from the Japanese overlords. Yunho had fled from Nonsan when his brother Yunso became caught up with North Korean Guerilla fighters. He is watchful, fearful of the Korean Secret Service; and signs up to the concept of “a Korea without poverty or social class.”
“Friends betrayed friends. Brothers betrayed brothers. Fathers betrayed their sons.”
Johnny’s family are, conversely, pro-Japanese – the first of many deep political divisions in the narrative. In Seoul, Johnny gets involved in political gang thuggery and ballot rigging and he embroils Yunho in his shenanigans. They mark crosses on freshly-printed ballot slips for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, Rhee and Ki-poong, who are standing against opponent Chang Myon. “The printer’s ink clung to my fingers, hands and forearms . . . I felt branded, because it couldn’t be washed off, no matter how hard I scrubbed.”
Allegations of corruption and manipulation of results in the elections of March 1960 spark student protests, rioting and demos calling for new elections. Kim writes superb descriptions of police brutality, thuggery and torture. Yunho, Johnny and Eve get caught up in the violence and mayhem which spirals into the April Revolution, causing the annulment of the election, the resignation and exile of Rhee, and the eventual collapse of the First Republic.
A violent crime forces the trio into exile, and they flee to Japan. Despite being safe among fellow fugitives, the effects of war are still deeply felt, and faction-fighting continues. As their trajectories change and coalesce, each of the three must find their own way to survive and come to terms with what has happened to their homeland.
The young German interlocutor who begins the story is an audience for Yunho, as is the reader. Kim gives straightforwardly didactic explanations about the history of Korea through Yunho who often contextualises events or actions for his listener. Historical facts are worked seamlessly into the narrative, and I learned a huge amount from this novel. Kim covers Korea’s history with Japan starting in 1876 – “the year in which ‘the injustice’ began” – through to the end of the twentieth century. She shows how the Korean diaspora in Japan is a legacy of Japan’s colonisation of Korea, (it has always been the largest group of foreign residents in an otherwise ethnically homogenous country). Remarkably, Kim’s prose never gets weighed down by the history, which is also a testament to Searle’s elegant translation that shines throughout. This is a political novel, not just a love story, and the dangers of ideology resonate.
The Cold War through Asian Eyes
The way we see Cold War politics through the eyes of the locals is brilliantly done. The gentle and lyrical interlacing of poetic metaphor and imagery throughout the text, juxtaposed with the brutality of war, brings home the horror of it all. Kim weaves in imagery of the sun, light and darkness to sustain and instil a melodious, writerly feel that balances out some of the more factual moments. The “blood red Japanese sun” becomes a symbol of oppression that hangs over the narrative and reappears quietly throughout, while a culture of fear and mistrust is evoked beautifully through the play of light and dark.
Kim Il-sung’s rise to Power
North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung’s rise to power is described as a “sun-like ascent,” and at the very end of the novel, as change is once more afoot, “the sun went down.” The overwhelming and shadowy nature of Seoul is also effectively evoked. “Never trust your ears, only your eyes” says Yunho at one point in his story – advice that proves all too apt – and he describes feeling like “a ghost in a town that was forsaken by light.” At one point, market traders flee in the middle of a protest and, “with them disappeared the scant light that had dimly illuminated this corner.” These motifs build up a vivid portrait of a city torn apart by warring political factions and murky espionage. The bewitching Eve sums up the atmosphere of the novel when she says: “The words of the day are overheard by birds, the words of the night by rats.
Theatres of Memory
Anna Kim’s exploration of the past – past lives, past selves, past events – and the way in which she demonstrates the importance and relevance of the past to the present, and of the act of remembering itself, lingers long after finishing the book. As clocks on the wall in the beginning of the novel signify, multiple timeframes continually overlap and the past cannot exist apart from the present. Time is as important as history, and history “belongs to the one who makes his voice heard.” As Yunho speaks, Hanna realises that, “As you are listening . . . he controls the past.” Later she says that in his story, “the past felt more immediate than the present.”
The novel pays homage to memory. Kim explores the extent to which the events we live through, and the journeys and friendships we make, inform our understanding of who and where we are in the present. Yunho asks for forgiveness for calling Hanna “a person without history . . . It’s inaccurate, because of course you have a past, I would even say pasts. You are here to find that part of your history which, until now, has only been superficially addressed – in a sense, my story is yours.” Kim seems to ask us to look at how we are all attempting to come to terms with our stories, for that is what makes us who we are today, both individually and collectively.
Another of the novel’s accomplishments is the way in which Kim smoothly dips in and out of the lives of various supporting characters. The Great Homecoming is a novel about seeking home and finding roots. Kim shows us that everyone has a story worth hearing, and that, especially during war, these stories of loss, fear, displacement and discrimination ultimately unite us. In the opening chapter, before we even meet the main protagonists, we get a snippet of Hanna’s backstory as she describes her childhood nanny, “Whenever I think of Young Maria, I remember the doll I used to take with me everywhere, to school, to my piano lessons.” She describes lovingly how they “ironed in the evening” and remembers hearing stories about “a time in Korea when the young noble ladies . . . were permitted to wander . . .” Like Russian Matryoshka dolls, stories contain stories contain stories. Hanna could have easily remained no more than a literary device; giving us a glimpse into her childhood, Kim asserts that no one person’s history is more or less important than another’s.
This is a core belief that Kim repeatedly returns to, diverging again and again from the central narrative to tell the story of minor characters. In the later part of the novel, in Osaka, we learn about a neighbour, Yun, and a vegetable trader, Mr Ri. Yun was led under false pretences of work and prosperity to a coal mine and forced by Japanese guards to work, “They had to slave away from six in the morning until eight at night, and received three servings of barley gruel a day.” Yun fared better than Mr Ri, however, who “ended up in a coal mine . . . on the island of Sakhalin” where he “worked in the toughest conditions for two long years.”
The effect of these multiple narratives is not only to democratise the voices of Kim’s novel, but also to build up a picture of the vast and sprawling effects of war on multitudinous lives. Kim forces us to consider the infinite stories of exile and suffering during this period of Korean history, which makes the book all the more tender, delicate and human. The Great Homecoming may be a historical novel, but it puts people – a people; an entire nation – at its heart.
The Great Homecoming by Anna Kim | Translated by Jamie Lee Searle | PB 432pp ISBN: 978-1846276552 | Granta Books
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