It’s safe to say that, by far, this was the novel I was most looking forward to reading when the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist was announced. A fan of Kim’s previous novel, Your Republic is Calling You, the idea that he was turning his gaze to an obscure moment in Korean diaspora history made me very, very excited. And it’s because of these expectations that I was a little disappointed in what I found.
In 1904, a ship set sail from Busan. It carried one thousand Koreans, bound for Mexico, where they have been promised a new life, away from the oncoming storm that is the Japanese Empire. But when they arrive, they discover that everything they have been told is a lie. They are there to be indentured labour, unlikely to ever return to their homes. So they must make a new life for themselves in a foreign country, halfway around the globe.
I love research. I love reading books, finding references to other books, creating a web of information and knowledge. I also know that researching is about a million times more fun than writing—you can do all this reading and call it work without anyone blinking an eye. But there is a point where you must put down your books and get writing. I think Kim probably got to this point too late in his writing of this book, leaving it full of interesting facts about the story he is telling, to the detriment of the actual heart of literature. It’s all good and well to take an historical event and turn it into a novel, but you have to remember why you did it in the first place. If you are more concerned with the event than how the event affected the people, then maybe you should think about writing a non-fiction work.
The historical background Kim is writing about is fascinating. Admittedly, I just spent the last year writing about the Korean diaspora in Japan, so I have an interest in Korean diasporic movement. But like the Koreans in Japan, and indeed, like the Japanese in Brazil, a group of about 1000 Koreans were lured to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico with the promise of hard work, then freedom and riches. Of course, as with most mass migrations like this in the early twentieth century, this was a well-executed lie to get cheap Asian labour to parts of the Western world to avoid rising wages for Western workers.
This exploitation of people who don’t know any better is a legitimate and worthy part of twentieth century to explore through fiction. There are so many stories to tell: the family torn apart, the new immigrant worked to the bone, the coming together of people in times of need, the breakdown of social and cultural mores in the face of adversity. Kim touches on all of these, but in passing—he is far more keen to fill our faces with minor details about Mexican history that, while do inform the novel, are out of place in a text of this length. The ratio of character moments to historical detail is weighted far too heavily toward the latter. I don’t say this often, but if he wanted to keep all that detail in there, he would have been much better off doing so as part of a much longer, epic, widescreen work. Too often I found myself skimming over passages about the intricacies of the Mexican Revolution that had nothing to do with any of the main characters.
The blurb of my edition suggests that this will be a love story, between a young man reborn on his trip to Mexico, Kim Ijeong, and the daughter of an aristocratic caught up in the trip, Yi Yeonsu. Their relationship certainly informs much of the novel. Their meeting on the ship is by chance, and foreshadows much of the degradation of social systems that will rapidly take place once the thousand have left Korea. Of course, as with all teenagers left unwatched, their relationship quickly becomes physical. When they arrive in Mexico, they are taken to different haciendas, farm/estates where Koreans are used as cheap labour. They manage to meet up again, and in one of their secret trysts, conceive a child. But Ijeong is caught up in other events, and he leaves, completely oblivious to the fact that he has just fathered a child.
And the two never meet again. They go their separate ways, living their own lives, caught up in the Mexican Revolution that seems to catch so many Koreans in its wake. Or maybe that’s just Kim putting his characters where he wants them so he can talk more about Mexican history.
Unsurprisingly, the best parts of the novel are the ones where Kim ignores all the history going on and focuses on his characters. The role of religion plays a huge part in the novel, right from before everyone boards the ship, when a priest, Bak Jeonghun, is robbed of his cross, by a thief, Choe Seongil. Though, at this stage in history, not so many Koreans are Christian, they are brought to Mexico, which is. And so tension arises when the Koreans want to practice their own funeral/marriage ceremonies, even though they are what might be viewed as heathen by some Christians. It’s a strand that, actually, could have been brought out even more to highlight the cultural differences between the two groups. Sadly, this was not to be.
I feel like this is the second time I’ve said this in as many months, but if you are looking for a story about the labourer exodus from Asia in the early twentieth century, there really is no better novel than Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. Though Kim reaches for similar heights, trying to tell the story of thousands at once, Black Flower falls short of his target. Too caught up in the macro, he forgets that the best literature focuses on the macro, the personal stories that act as a mirror for history.