Saturday, 27 July 2019

Marilyn and Me

By Ji-min Lee
The Korean War (1950-1953) is commonly referred to in the Anglophone world as ‘The Forgotten War’, which apart from the more obvious question ‘Why?’, also prompts the query ‘By whom?’ 
  The ‘Why?’ has several credible explanations, foremost among which is that, sandwiched between the euphoric rectitude of the ‘Just War’ victory over the forces of evil in World War II, and the nadir of the moral bankruptcy and humiliation of ‘The War That Wasn’t Won’ of Vietnam, the Korean hostilities have been consigned to a footnote in American history. This is to underestimate grossly its importance: not only as the first major conflict and carve-up along Cold War lines, which still resonates today in the Trump administration’s agitation over North Korea’s nuclear capability; but also because of the sheer devastation it caused the war-torn country. Between three and four million people lost their lives, as many as 70% of whom were civilians. Destruction was particularly acute in the North, which was subjected to over two years of sustained American bombing, including the first use of napalm. Roughly 25% of Korea’s prewar population was killed. Damage was also widespread in the South, where Seoul changed hands four times. Furthermore, technically, the war has never ended: the fighting stopped when North Korea, China and the U.S. reached an armistice in 1953, but South Korea did not agree to it, and no formal peace treaty was ever signed. Ironically, the Forgotten War is still going on.
  As for the ‘By whom?’, it would appear the answer is ‘Everyone, except the North Koreans.’ Largely elided from American historical discourse, and too painful to be passed on to younger generations of South Koreans by those who survived, in the popular consciousness the most significant fact about the Korean War is that for four days in 1954, Marilyn Monroe entertained American troops stationed there.
  All of which preamble is only important for our purposes here because this war and its aftermath is the world inhabited by the heroine and first-person narrator of this novel, Alice J. Kim – real name Kim Ae-sun. The novel opens in Seoul in February 1954, just over six months after the armistice, but with military tensions still high, American troops present in force, and the country itself completely devastated. Alice, now in her late twenties, who was an artist and something of an intellectual before life-altering events overtook her during the war, is working as a typist on the U.S. base, where she is the only Korean woman making a living off the American military without being a prostitute – although everyone assumes that she is. ‘Only whores or spies take on an easy to pronounce foreign name.’ 
  With Japan’s surrender to America at the end of WWII, America occupied the ex-Japanese colony of Korea, but for Alice, ‘Everything remained the same, except the flag flying in front of the former Japanese Government General of Korea building had changed from the Japanese flag to the American one.’ This observation should find resonance locally, where we are often told that the only change in post-Independence Ireland was that postboxes changed colour from red to green.
  When Marilyn Monroe takes time out from her Japanese honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio to tour Korea, Alice is selected as her translator, because of her trilingual skills. With her prematurely grey hair which she dyes with beer, her fraying lace gloves that hide (self-inflicted) burn marks on her hands, and the memories she fears will engulf her, Alice is – in contemporary parlance – suffering from PTSD, and so initially subdued in the presence of the famous Hollywood starlet. ‘War had killed the love and hope and warmth within me, but it had also spared me. I covered my face with my hands, sobbing out the last bit of love to shore up the life remaining inside.’ But as these two women form an unlikely, temporary friendship, the story of Alice’s traumatic experiences in the conflict emerges, and when she becomes embroiled in a sting operation involving the entrapment of a Communist spy she is forced to confront the past she has been trying so hard to repress. 
  The narrative alternates between 1954 and the years 1947-50, and much of Alice’s current suffering is related to her pre-war, personal love life. Her two ex-lovers, who reappear in her post-war present, are married writer Yo Min-Hwan, and Joseph Pines, an American spy posing as a missionary. They form a naïve ménage a trois, which ends abruptly when she betrays one with the other. But she is also haunted by her failure to protect two little girls in her charge during the strife, Yo’s daughter Song-ha, and Chong-nim, an orphan ‘who grabbed my hand trustingly as we escaped Hungnam amid ten thousand screaming refugees.’
  Alice is a suicide survivor who is planning another attempt, but who comes to realise before it is too late that she is not necessarily responsible for the survivor guilt which is crippling her. Obviously written with an eye to possible filmisation (Lee is a successful screenwriter in her native country), hardly a word is wasted in this beautifully written short novel, especially during the early scene-setting sections. However, the cathartic effects, delineated in the denouement, of Alice’s time with Marilyn, are at best tenuous and at worst contrived. It is telling that the only way to get a Western audience interested in a neglected international episode in which the West was involved, is to drag in one of its most legendary cultural icons, kicking and screaming, rather than focusing solely on the validity of an indigenous woman’s experiences. But maybe that was a calculated compromise, deemed judicious. The work is, nevertheless, a necessary and timely act of reclamation and remembrance for the so-called Forgotten War.

First published in The Irish Times, 27/07/2019

Monday, 8 April 2019

From The Irish Times, 30/04/2019

Minor Monuments

By Ian Maleney
(Tramp Press, €15 p/b)
The writer of this loosely connected debut collection of essays, around the themes of home, memory and belonging, has been plying his trade as a freelance arts correspondent based in Dublin for several years, and is indeed a sometime contributor to this newspaper. However, his origins lie in the much maligned ‘fly over country’ of the midlands – Co. Offaly to be precise – and it is the thug and pull of metropolitan cultural life against the old ways of the small family farm on the edge of a bog which informs the mood of these meditations. 
  One can hardly mention the word ‘bog’ in the context of contemporary Irish letters without a nod to Seamus Heaney, and in ‘A Kind of Closing Cadence’ Maleney writes movingly of what Heaney has meant to him as an enabling influence: ‘For me, Heaney’s success was evidence that the kind of inconsequential rural place I know best could still be worth writing about, and that the touchstones of my parochial upbringing could be made relevant, even telling. It also showed me that my relationship to that place need not be straightforward.’ At first sight it seems strange that Patrick Kavanagh, another writer with a vexed rural/urban relationship, does not get a look in, but stony grey soil differs substantially from marshland, and it is the metaphor of the bog as a repository of familial and communal memory that inspires Maleney. From this muddy foundation emerge the other supporting structures of his book: the loss of memory and identity brought about by his grandfather John Joe’s slow succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease, and the recording of sound (and, briefly, the taking of photographs) as modes of memory preservation. These deep excavations of ‘bog’ take its connotations far further than the one word signifier it frequently operates as for Dubliners born and bred, like myself, for ‘anywhere beyond the pale’.   
  Maleney studied sound engineering in college, ‘but the promise of that idea had faded by the time I’d finished.’ Growing increasingly dissatisfied with the conventional studio recording of ‘songs’, where the results are often overly predetermined at the expense of the aleatoric ‘happy accidents’ of the process itself, Maleany develops an interest in capturing found sounds, from the modulation of church bells ringing in the distance to the rustle of wind through trees. In this pursuit his guide is English musician and writer David Toop’s book Haunted Weather, which leads him in turn to Brian Eno’s foundational ambient album Discreet Music, which becomes another touchstone.   A more in-depth exploration of why he abandoned sound engineering might have proved fruitful: after all, many of the techniques he favours have now been absorbed into even mainstream recording. Likewise, some engagement with Jacques Attali’s seminal Noise: The Political Economy of Music, which shares many of his concerns, could also have been beneficial. 
  ‘Ambient’ and ‘environment’ are derived, of course, from the same etymological root, and the real breakthrough comes when Maleney hits on the idea of documenting his grandfather’s gradual disintegration, ‘…of trying to record John Joe in whatever ways I could. To track the situation in which he found himself, to follow it in a way that was not rigid, not predefined, but entirely sympathetic, alert to the contours and pressures of his particular atmosphere.’ Thus, the vaguely theoretical finds a practical, personal application, and something abstractly universal is given relevance in the local.
  John Joe’s memory proves tricky terrain for the memoirist, however, and not just because of encroaching Alzheimer’s. Like all of us, his recollections are embellished over time, so that the incidents he is struggling to hold on to may not be factually correct at all. For instance, his account of his sister Chrissy’s departure for America, aged fourteen, does not tally with that of Chrissy herself. ‘John Joe had recalled his sister’s leaving so many times, and over such a long period, that it became mostly fiction.’ Similarly, when Maleney is commissioned to write a feature about the Lough Boora Parklands, site of an old Bord na Móna bog, John Joe bonds with his grandson, recalling working at Boora for almost twenty summers. But it transpires that John Joe never worked in Boora, but ‘…in Blackwater, a bog near the banks of the Shannon, twelve or thirteen miles west of Boora.’ Is this another misremembrance, or the disease going about its baleful business?
  The book takes an interesting left turn in a section entitled ‘Machine Learning’, which discusses the work of scientists John Von Neumann and Alan Turing on artificial intelligence, the boons and vagaries of mechanistic memory storage, and the nature of consciousness itself. A deft invocation of Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphorintroduces the most insightful writing on Alzheimer’s and its significances: ‘The primary effect of Alzheimer’s is to make a person utterly useless to their networks…It is a disintegration of personhood. It is a type of death. The process of withdrawal in not something that happens overnight, and it is the drawn-put nature of Alzheimer’s which sparks some of the strongest fear. It is a fear of prolonged humiliation. The patient is, in some deeply abhorrent way, out of control. When the possibility of memory storage disappears, with it goes the ability to either interpret or communicate any information received. In the eyes of others, they may become irrational beings who can no longer follow the same logical steps as everyone else.’
  As the book ends, with John Joe’s funeral, Maleney realises that he would exchange all his knowledge and experience of the world beyond his home place for what John Joe had accumulated in his eighty-three years by the bog, and that he wants ‘…to be part of a community rather than a network.’ But he is also ominously aware that ‘If you try to go back, you will find that nothing is the same. The road vanishes as you walk it.” 
  Despite the acknowledged ‘performative self-narration’ of the youthful excesses of his foray into music journalism (reports of the Death of Rock Music – even if they concern Noel Gallagher – are always premature, if not greatly exaggerated) Maleney is, at least, an honest writer who has written a brave and thoughtful book, which makes him a worthy successor to his esteemed grandfather’s mantle.