Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
Vol.2, no. 3, June-August, 1997
Old Man Ko, the narrator's grandfather, exemplifies the traditional Korean beliefs in geomancy and resignation to fate. Instead of blaming "the contractors" for his first son's death, he attributes the cause of his suffering to the orography of his father's grave site and thinks that, by relocating and repeatedly reburying his ancestor's bones, misfortune will depart. His indifference to political realities shows that he possesses a Hobbesian worldview: Ko advises his grandson: "Why should anyone lift a finger for anyone else? Why should anyone expect even one bit of help from anyone else?" By acquiescing to whoever is in charge, Old Man Ko enslaves himself to his oppressors and sacrifices the cultural values he tries so hard to preserve.
Only in the end does he experience an uplifting epiphany, "a realization that no one could calculate the very next moment of destiny" (165). At 80, he finally realizes his superstitions have done nothing to improve his lot in life. When the enemy forces him at gun-point to lure his grandson out of hiding, the old man decides Hyon "must live" (165) and refuses to cooperate. As a result, he is shot, but while he is dying, he hears a "lovely sound" from Hyon, calling his "Grandfather" (165) in the echo of the gunshot.
Old Man Ko's first son is the complete antithesis of his father. When he protests against the arrival of the People's Army, he is killed in front of his father's rice shop and leaves his wife with an unborn child. Against all odds, he remains a visionary patriot, struggling to liberate his people from Japanese imperialism. Moreover, he is a Christian who believes in the existence of a benevolent and just God. It is only because of martyrs like him, who actively try to change the circumstances, that dreams and visions will ever materialize.
The old man partially blames his son's death on the destiny of his daughter-in-law and moves the burial site of his ancestor in hope of a better future. The widow soon gives birth to Hyon, in whom Ko sees "a glimmering of hope" (127). For thirty years, she works in the rice paddies Ko has given to her son while she single-handedly raises him. When Hyon reaches the age of four, Ko disallows him to go with her to church and blames Jesus, whom she believes in, for causing his son to throw life away and leave his family behind. Although she suffers much, her love for Hyon, her husband, and God soothes the wounds inflicted by life.
As for Hyon, he struggles to choose between the examples set by his grandfather and his father, between revolt and resignation. He recognizes the detrimental effects of ideology--be it Japanese ultra-nationalism or communism--and subconsciously follows in his father's footsteps by speaking out against the "unsolicited contractors." He is continually compelled to challenge what appears unjust, but he is afraid of the death and suffering that may await him for standing up to the oppressors.
Hyon's greatest challenge is to overcome a tendency to run from problems. When he is drafted to fight in the war with the Japanese, he ends up fleeing. He once confronts the principal of a girls school where he teaches, but a month later, he resigns, regretting that the arguments with his superior have caused bad feelings. After screaming out, "murderer!" at the execution of the Korean patriots, Hyon flees again. He does not have the courage to fight for what he cherishes. After a succession of similar situations, he finally chooses to act when he witnesses Yonho, his childhood friend, kill his grandfather. At 30, Hyon realizes living in a shell will never liberate the Korean people from the humiliation of servitude.
Chon, Kwangyong. "Kapitan Lee." In Flowers of Fire: Twentieth-Century Korean Stories. Ed. and trans. Peter Lee. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974, pp. 319-347.
Lee, Peter, ed. Flowers of Fire: Twentieth-Century Korean Stories. Ed. and trans. Peter Lee. Revised edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.
Illustration by Julie Shim