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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The Guest

by
Hwang Sok-Yong


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Guest



Title: The Guest
Author: Hwang Sok-Yong
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 234 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Guest - US
The Guest - UK
The Guest - Canada
L'Invité - France
Der Gast - Deutschland
  • Translated by Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fairly well-handled novel of coming to terms with the past

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 18/9/2006 John Feffer
NZZ . 3/3/2007 Ludger Lütkehaus
San Francisco Chronicle C+ 6/11/2005 Timothy Peters


  From the Reviews:
  • "The Guest is worthwhile not only for its heterodox version of Korean history and its intriguing portrait of North Korean society. It is a finely rendered work of fiction -- disturbing yet somehow beautiful. Hwang's achievement should resonate long after the controversies over its illumination of one dark corner of the Korean War subside." - John Feffer, The Nation

  • "Hwang schenkt den Lesern des Romans nichts. Ungeschönt wird ein politischer Terror geschildert, der hier im wörtlichsten Sinn den Namen eines "Bruderkriegs" verdient." - Ludger Lütkehaus, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(A)n unflinching, ambitious novel (.....) Sok-Yong captures that suffering with admirable righteousness. But what he fails to portray, at least as rendered in this translation, is the real drama of that suffering. His book is flawed by an ersatz magical realism, an overly schematic structure and a disturbing kind of moral relativism. (...) It's not really a narrative; it's a piece of history struggling to be brought to life." - Timothy Peters, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title of this novel may suggest something welcomed or at least benign, but Hwang Sok-Yong makes clear in his Author's Note introducing the novel that sonnim ('guest') here has different connotations: it was one of the terms Koreans used to refer to smallpox. He goes on:

     As smallpox reached epidemic proportions and began sweeping across the nation, shamanic rituals called "guest exorcisms" were often performed to fight against the foreign intruder. The Guest is essentially a shamanistic exorcism designed to relieve the agony of those who survived and appease the spirits of those who were sacrificed on the altar of cultural imperialism half a century ago.
       The event the book focusses on is an atrocity -- fifty days of Rwanda-like frenzied killing -- from the time of the Korean war. Though blamed on the Americans, it was a local affair, those infected by the two dominant 'guests' of the era, Christianity and Marxism, butchering each other.
       The novel is set in the present. Reverend Ryu Yosop lives in New York and has an opportunity to visit his homeland -- (North) Korea -- for the first time in some forty years. Shortly before he leaves his older brother, Ryu Yohan, who lives nearby in New Jersey, dies.
       The journey is to be one of coming to terms with the past -- a past that, as slowly becomes clear, was a horrific one. This confrontation with the past is too much for Yohan, who was both central to and very culpable in what happened all those decades ago. He left behind a wife and child and started life anew in the United States, wiping the slate clean, marrying again.
       Ryu Yosop wants to deal with what happened -- though he also approaches it warily, initially not mentioning that he has any family members left in North Korea, for example (while most of the others on the trip are there explicitly to meet family). As he explains to the son Yohan left behind:
     "I've come here to cleanse us all of te crimes that were committed by people like your father and me."
       Among the few things he takes along: a sliver of bone from his brother's cremated body, returning it to the homeland too.
       The Guest alternates between a fairly straightforward narrative of Yosop's progress from New York to North Korea, and what he sees there and the visits he pays, and first-person accounts of past and present from others, including the ghost or spirit of Yohan reliving those terrible days. It's an effective if ugly tale, and the still-prevalent (though now somewhat subdued) zealotry of both the religious believers and the (communist) party followers leaves one wondering how much can truly be exorcised.
       An interesting glimpse of North Korea, too, The Guest is also artfully presented. Hwang Sok-Yong knows his craft, and though cultural aspects of the novel likely elude the Western reader it easily impresses. Still, as promised, the book is presented like an exorcism-ritual, and there's something a bit programmatic about how it proceeds. It also requires belief that a twelve-step programme like the one presented here can actually cleanse and heal -- something a believer like Yosop might be able to do, but which many readers might find considerably more difficult.
       Still: harsh, but worthwhile.

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Links:

The Guest: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature
  • Jean Hatzfeld's Machete Season (UK title: A Time for Machetes) - different locale, similar actions

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About the Author:

       Hwang Sok-Yong was born in 1943. He is a leading Korean writer.

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© 2005-2009 the complete review

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