Monday, 26 April 2010

The Ancient Garden

It’s long been a commonplace of Marxist literary theory to argue that “the difference between science and art” is that “science gives us conceptual knowledge of a situation; art gives us the experience of that situation” and, like most commonplaces, this one manages to be both deeply inadequate and disorienting as well as pointing in the direction of something useful and true.

I’ve had a surfeit of “the experience of that situation” recently, working my through Hwang Sok-Yong’s brilliant and moving novel The Ancient Garden. There’s nothing quite like weeping through your tea breaks to mark you out as the office oddball, but I can’t imagine the reader who could get through this story and remain unmoved. The resilience of realism’s strategies is worth noting: a fairly conventional device of splitting the plot-, narrative- and story-time via letters and recollection in not-quite-tranquility by characters ‘sadder but wiser’ manages to evoke both the scale, tragedy and grandeur of the Gwangju massacre – and the struggles which shaped the ‘386’ generation more widely – and offer us an insight into the human impact and complexity of those times and their legacy now.

Experience becomes an issue in other ways as well. For any socialist in one of the oppressor countries there’s bound to be a healthy discomfort from time to time as we ponder the experiential gulf between our own lives and those of others. I don’t mean a political point by this; the idea that things being worse elsewhere means we should ignore injustice here is never one I’ve understood, and I’ve no patience with calls to substitute solidarity with gratitude. My point is a vaguer one, about feelings: impossible sometimes to talk about starvation and torture and war when it’s so distant, so foreign from the life world we can draw on for comparison.

Hwang’s novel gives us a sense of that world, but he also captures something of the imaginative and emotional demands of what movements fight for. The non-argument that ideas and theory and articulate visions mar fiction they appear in (the show don’t tell carry-on) is too lame to waste time with here; what The Ancient Garden illuminates is how often everyday life is used as an ideological stand-in for alternatives to politics in art. Food, family, sexual love, nature, beauty, idleness: it’s impossible to imagine a vision of the good life which doesn’t treasure these things, yet far too many celebrations of what we might have now turn into implicit arguments against wider transformation. Hwang is alive to that tension and draws from it to give his novel its charge.

All of this, of course, is a roundabout and no doubt overblown and agonized way of trying to communicate how much I loved this work, how much it moved me, and how important it felt, how vital a record, a testament, and a call to continue. Although she doesn’t at first seem like she’ll be the hero or the model of resilience, it’s the voice of the character Han Yoon Hee which stays in my mind:

There will be endless debates and numerous arguments that will always need to begin from square one; compromises that no one’s happy with will be made, and after a long wait will come some slight progress, which will most likely be distorted after a while. All there can be is a partnership or an election. It will be impossible to figure out how the threads got entangled, so you will be lucky to find the one you just missed. And everyone will resemble everyone else while holding onto the end of that one thread and arguing over it, never again able to go back to the starting point. While trying to destroy the system, they will form another system in order to destroy it. No one can remain a warrior forever. Even the revolutionary committee goes home after a day’s work. At home, the wife takes care of the kids and complains that his paycheck is late again and nags that he is never home and whines that there is no more money. Again and again, they eat and drink and fight and have sex and go to work and begin debating again. In between the land he had left and the sky and the far future there is an infinite black hole with its mouth wide open. A revolution? That is a frozen scintillation. If you are not banished like Oh Hyun Woo or murdered by bullets in front of a barricade like his brothers, you will have to live an exhausting life as an activist who has to commute to work. Still, even if that is the case, how beautiful a revolution is. Even if it makes your mouth dry, even if you end up quivering with disillusionment, it still electrifies you and reminds you that you are alive.


That long quote is from pp. 366-7 of Jay Oh’s translation of The Ancient Garden (Basingstoke: Picador, 2009).

The experience quote at the start of this post is from Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (Berkley: UC Press, 1976), p. 18.


  1. I haven't read this or seen the film ( but I believe it is a semi-autobiographical novel about Hwang's own time in jail. It makes it even more unfortunate (especially reading the quotation above) that his political trajectory of late has been so dodgy (

  2. Dodgy indeed. And can you think of a worse traveling companion? The novel's definitely got autobiographical elements, not only the prison material but also on his time in Germany.

    I think it'd be a very different experience reading The Ancient Garden as a 386er or Korean leftist generally instead of being an outsider like me: not that the aesthetic achievement would seem less, but that it's other tasks would be more apparent and would have to be read within a living context instead of as illustrative material.

    The Japanese translation of the title renders it as "the garden of nostalgia", and there's a clear case being made that 1989 marks the end of a particular type of politics etc.