The Red Room: Stories of Trauma in Contemporary Korea

Bruce Fulton + Ju-Chan Fulton (editors)

translated from the Korean
University of Hawaii Press 2009
A book review by Danny Yee © 2015
Things may be changing with a new generation, but modern Korean literature has been dominated by the political disasters of Korean history, so a collection focused on trauma seems almost redundant. The three stories in The Red Room, however, focus on the long-term effects of trauma, on what we might now call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on its social implications.

The two long pieces that take up most of the book are both told from dual perspectives. O Chong-hui's near hundred page novella "Spirit on the Wind" is divided, in four alternating chapters, between the third-person perspective of Un-So and the first-person perspective of her husband. He struggles to cope with Un-So's periodic disappearances and reappearances, which she is unable to explain. She, meanwhile, is haunted by trace recollections of the slaughter of the rest of her family, before she was adopted at age five. Probing these memories provides the background and denouement, but otherwise "Spirit on the Wind" is about the present, about the effects of past traumas on a family, on Un-So's young son and mother as well as on her and her husband.

The title story, Im Ch'or-u's "The Red Room", is even more focused on the present, describing the arrest and torture of a schoolteacher on nebulous grounds, an event which could have occurred only a few years before the story's publication in 1988, just after South Korea's democratization. It alternates between the perspective of the victim, who goes from worrying about his bowel movements in the morning to being brutally beaten and waterboarded, and that of his chief interrogator. The connection with the past is in the latter's memories of violence as a young child, when his father's family were slaughtered by communists, in his father's subsequent obsession with violence as redemption, and in his continuation of that with his own children.

Pak Wan-so's much shorter "In the Realm of the Buddha" is told by a daughter, with her mother, carrying out a Buddhist rite for her father. In its first half the tensions appear to centre on the mother-daughter relationship. But why are they carrying out the first such ceremony twenty two years after the death? The second half of the story links the present back to the violent deaths of Father and Brother and the inability — because of the politics involved — of the survivors to acknowledge those deaths.

Bruce Cumings provides a five page foreword touching on the background history, while Bruce Fulton's similar length afterword situates the three works in their specific contexts. Fulton comments that Korean literature is often perceived in the West as "provincial and depressing", and the stories in The Red Room fit that stereotype, tackling the darkest of themes in social and family and religious contexts that are essentially Korean. They also, however, address universal themes of survival and adaptation and offer some vision of hope and an open future.

February 2015

External links:
- buy from
- buy from or
- share this review on Facebook or Twitter
Related reviews:
- Bruce Fulton - Modern Korean Fiction: An Anthology
- Bruce Fulton - Waxen Wings: The Acta Koreana Anthology of Short Fiction from Korea
- Bruce Fulton, Ju-Chan Fulton - The Future of Silence: Fiction by Korean Women; Wayfarer: New Fiction by Korean Women
- more Korean literature
- more war fiction
- books published by University of Hawaii Press
%T The Red Room: Stories of Trauma in Contemporary Korea
%E Fulton, Bruce
%E Fulton, Ju-Chan
%M Korean
%F Fulton, Bruce
%F Fulton, Ju-Chan
%I University of Hawaii Press
%D 2009
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780824833978
%P 195pp