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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Untamed past taken by the tail


By STEVE FINBOW
TO KILL A TIGER: A Memoir of Korea, by Jid Lee. The Overlook Press, 2010, 320 pp., $25.95 (hardcover)

Jid Lee, now a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University, begins this memoir with the tale of the killing of her great-great-great-great- great-great grandmother by a tiger. A Buddhist monk predicted the death, saying it would bring rewards to her descendants. Her "sacrifice" is the touchstone for the family's existence, its social position, and the ongoing battle between East and West that categorizes much of Korea's history.

A personal, familial and national memoir, this book moves from the (not so) niceties of hierarchy at Korean mealtimes to Korea's labyrinthine politics. Redolent with the smells of the marketplace, dripping with the sleazy glamour of prostitutes and hoodlums, Lee conjures up a country full of excitement and danger in contrast and comparison with a childhood dominated by hunger and familial bullying. The weaving of Korea's relationships with America and Japan into the narrative of everyday Korean life — the stoning of unwanted babies, sibling cruelty, rice farming, arranged marriages — is deftly handled. The military similes for the everyday life of a poor family trying to make ends meet, struggling with a corrupt American-supported government and secretly supporting Korean reunification are cleverly used.

Lee is particularly astute when writing about the Korean War, delving into its long and complicated incubation, the shattering of families, the imprisonment and torture of leftwing dissidents (including the author's father) and the crushing by the American government of traditional Korean grassroots socialism. This all began back in 1908, when Japan suggested to Russia that they divide Korea along the 38th parallel. History tells us that did not happen; Jid Lee gives us her version of events since that date.

The memoir is not all doom, gloom and warfare. Family life, the categorization of father, mother, big brother, less-big brother and big sister — Korean families do not use their given names — is humorously handled, as is the rivalry among siblings for love, food and attention. There are stories of exorcism, domestic slavery, suicide and forbidden fruit in the form of love and female education.

On the train during their move to Seoul, the children discuss their dreams for the future: the best high school, the best university to serve one's country and to learn English. These dreams are not only dreams of the children but dreams of Korea, dreams of Asia, and Lee effortlessly intertwines the stories of her family life with the wider concerns of her country and her continent.

The arguments and alliances within family life mirror the vote rigging and violence of president Park Chung Hee's South Korea.

The discussions of Korean feminism, communism and anticommunism, and the relationship of South to North Korea provide the narrative with a political backdrop to everyday family tales. In a similar manner to Jung Chang's "Wild Swans," Lee's memoir tells the history of a family in reference to points of history in her country, with special focus on the role of women in society and education.

Lee intersperses the memoir with stories told by her relatives that highlight points in Korea's tumultuous history, including a horrendous tale told by her mother about her childhood village, from where "comfort women" (some as young as 12 years old) were taken by the Japanese government to be used as sex slaves.

From the 19th-century Yi Dynasty and Japan-occupied Korea, through the partition and the student riots of the 1970s, and on to the author's move in 1980 to the United States of America to start graduate studies, this memoir is unflinching in its honesty and unblinking in the spotlight of her country's chaotic past. The writing is poetic and descriptive, and Jid Lee's nerves hold when addressing personal and national nightmares.

In the introduction, the author claims her means of writing the past is an "exercise of disciplined imagination"; this memoir is just that, an articulation of history through a writer's memory and vision.



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