The Guest (Sonnim), Hwang Sok-yong’s 2001 novel, offers a sustained meditation on conditions of possibility for inter-Korean reconciliation. Featuring memories of what happened in Sinchon, a North Korean town where an estimated thirty-five thousand civilians were killed during the early months of the Korean War, the novel explores the relationship between official and unofficial narratives of the Korean War, and between different versions of official histories that have sustained the nationalist logics of Korean division. The novel also moves beyond representation to a performance of reconciliation by turning the narrative into a ritual space in a reinvigorated implementation of Korean funerary tradition.
In the process, The Guest both couples and decouples truth and reconciliation. While seeking validity for its version of the Sinchon massacre by offering up its fictional narrative as a truthful revision of official histories, The Guest incessantly undermines the empirical ground for its version of history. What opens up as a result is the gap between cognition and affect, law and lawfulness; reconciliation emerges not as the natural consequence of establishing truth but as an agonizing attempt to close the gap between truth and justice. Where truth may actually hinder the cause of reconciliation, what is the price of arriving at truth without reconciliation, and of implementing reconciliation without truth? Situating The Guest in the context of Hwang Sok-yong’s own commentary, this essay examines the relevance of these questions for contemporary Korea.
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