December 27, 2012 by markstani
Young-Ha Kim’s Black Flower was published to some acclaim in South Korea in 2004, winning the country’s Dong-in literary award. It recreates a little-known and fascinating period in Korean history, when a boat-load of emigrants set sail on the British steamer Ilford, bound for Mexico.
It is 1904 and Russia is at war with Japan in a conflict which will ultimately lead to Japanese annexation of Korea. It against this backdrop that a motley collection of aristocrats, priests, thieves and shamans are convinced to part with their savings to head west: they need little convincing that a better life awaits.
What they find upon their arrival on Mexico’s remote and barren Yucatan peninsula is not what they had hoped. They find themselves effectively enslaved on the region’s vast henequen plantations, put to back-breaking work from dawn until dusk for a pittance, mercilessly bullied and whipped by the soldiers of the super-rich owners of the vast haciendas to which they have unwittingly committed the next four years of their lives.
There is little prospect of personal betterment, let alone escape, and the new system pays no heed to the rigidly feudal Korean class system, with relatives of royalty put to work alongside simple peasants. Likewise, there is no time for the Koreans’ pagan rituals, as the hacienda owners cajole and suppress them into a fanatical kind of Catholicism.
The Koreans’ contracts come to an end at the beginning of the Mexican revolution, with many drifting onto the sides of the peasant armies of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, and the novel ultimately moves on to, and ends in, the jungles of Guatemala, where a diminishing, rag-tag army of Che Guevara-style freedom fighters dream rather idealistically of the establishment of a ‘New Korea’.
Miguel, a Mexican soldier with whom Ijeong was close, was a curious anarchist. Chewing on cheap cigars like gum, he always said things like this: “nations are truly the root of all evil. Yet the nations do not disappear. If we drive out these caudillos and accomplish the revolution, other caudillos will seize control of the government. So what can we do? We can only shoot them all to death. If the revolution is to continue, this is the only way. A permanent revolution, that’s what it is.”
‘Black Flower’ is first and foremost a curious piece of social history that, for all its painstaking research, does not achieve its lofty ambitions. It starts out well enough, setting up the fascinating life stories of those who will commit themselves to the voyage, brooking favourable comparisons with last year’s MAN Asian-shortlisted River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh.
But Kim doesn’t quite manage to make the most of what he has at his disposal. The relationship between the orphan and future revolutionary Ijeong, and Yeonsu, the daughter of royalty, is by far the most compelling strand of the novel for any number of reasons – not least in that it shatters so many Korean cultural taboos – but its development is sporadic, and not exploited to anywhere near its full potential.
Just when you feel Ijeong and Yeonsu ought to come to prominence, the novel becomes bogged down in the political build-up to the Mexican revolution, its chief protagonists’ back-stories bolted on almost as if they have been cut-and-pasted from elsewhere. The momentum of the Koreans’ tale suffers as a result, their brief appearances rendering them rather one-dimensional.
What is more, the novel’s truly arresting plot development – the impromptu declaration of the ‘New Korea’ to replace the nation they have lost on the other side of the world, is given relatively short shrift, shoe-horned in at the end the book almost as an after-thought.
‘Black Flower’ is a worthy effort to shed light on a long-forgotten chapter of Korean history. It offers interesting glimpses into Korean feudal society, and provides an interesting reflection on the nature of nationhood. But it achieves far more as an historical document than it ever does as a novel. Ultimately, for all its raw potential, ‘Black Flower’ is a little too soulless for that.