Country in Focus: Korea
Book Review: Was that Mountain Really There? By Park Wan-suh (Translated by Hannah Kim)
Reviewed by Anushka Ray
Title: Was that Mountain Really There?
Author: Park Wan-suh
Translator: Hannah Kim
Publisher: Kitaab International Pte ltd
Autobiographies typically present the picture of perfect bravery; they are a testament to fortified bulwarks authors build up as they trudge along, with a complimentary voice depicting a clear story line and eventual victory. Was that Mountain Really There? is rare in its sense where the narrator remains at her core so impenetrably humble and human, it is no longer a retelling of a story. Instead, it becomes a reflection on adolescence, a growing up which just so happened to coincide with the 1950-1953 Korean War. Park Wan-suh upholds an honest narrative voice, with a raw sincerity that transforms even the most tumultuous of moments into something delicate and fragile.
Every word has a distinct purpose. Even the seemingly mindless title is explained in the author’s foreword, with the retelling of how Wan-suh witnessed the construction of a new gymnasium in replacement of a hideous mound in her hometown. This development, although praised by the neighbourhood, somehow struck a chord within her, as she campaigns to immortalize the memory of the small hill. The strange memory effortlessly portrays the sense of futility which existed in her childhood, especially growing up in an age where everything around was demolished. It is this fear of history being forgotten which compelled Wan-suh to publish the novel, a way to tell the world ‘that’s how we lived’.
Was that Mountain Really There? explores the life of author Park Wan-suh as a 20-year-old caught in the Korean War in 1951. Accompanied by her relatives, Wan-suh navigates the eruptive state of Korea, where the constant battle for power between the North and South Koreans controls their actions. She navigates the country both literally and figuratively, as she briefly escapes Seoul and finds a short-lived refuge in Gyoha (part of the then country Paju) before returning home. While a palpable fear is instilled from the opening pages with Wan-suh’s brother suffering from a North Korean inflicted gun wound, there is a clear reluctance to encounter South Korean soldiers due to the family’s previous communist history. All this accumulates to a constant state of paranoia when faced with any militia, and an underlying commentary on whether either army was in the right. This paranoia sustains throughout the novel but gradually grows subdued and muted, dictating their decisions yet not exposing them to any violence.
What could easily become yet another historical non-fiction book depicting the bloodshed and ruthlessness of wartime becomes a confessional diary of sorts with Park Wan-suh simultaneously depicting her journey towards adulthood. There are countless anecdotes revealing her inexperience with love and sex, creating a sense of familiarity by capturing a fragility which remains wholly human and naive. Yet, amongst these trivial misconceptions there remains the landscape of fear and suspicion, where Wan-suh finds herself doubting everyone around her. It is easy to forget that when during war, not all battles are fought at the front. Was that Mountain Really There? is refreshing by memorializing how the simplest of actions remain haunted by war.
Sticky notes litter my copy of the book, each assigned to a different description – be it of a prostitute roaming the Korean sidewalks late in the night or a childish re-imagination of an abandoned house rediscovered. Park Wan-suh writes such moments with inescapable strength and a fierce presence, yet somehow projects softness within. It is this clear gentleness surmounting the violence which makes this book like a diamond in the rough.
Through Park Wan-suh’s innocent eyes, Korea rearranges to create a mismatched society of different classes and cultures clashing. Scenes flash in such a way as if we are witnessing a dying person’s last visions, not of her most memorable moments but her most memorable feelings. Wan-suh is exceptionally gifted at not only creating images but also at building emotions – feelings that reverberate throughout the spine of the book and echo in waves. Feelings of shame, humiliation, pride and love are felt strongly and purely and certainly not diminished by the polished translation. Was that Mountain Really There? seamlessly combines the futility of war with the futility of childhood, to not only educate and inform of the despair which existed in the bloody Korean War, but also to showcase the journal of a young girl learning to grow up.