The prisoner

Sŏg-yŏng Hwang, 1943-

Book - 2021

"A sweeping account of modern Korean history and a vivid memoir of political persecution from Korea's most acclaimed novelist"--

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London ; New York : Verso 2021.
Main Author
Sŏg-yŏng Hwang, 1943- (author)
Other Authors
Anton Hur (translator), Sora Kim-Russell
Item Description
"Readers should note that in order to bring the original two volume Korean text into one English volume, this translation is a slightly shortened version of the text, abridged in collaboration between the author, translators, and editor"--Editor's note.
Physical Description
610 pages ; 25 cm
  • Editor's Note
  • Prologue
  • 1. Leaving: 1985-86
  • 2. Prison I
  • 3. Visit to the North: 1986-89
  • 4. Prison II
  • 5. Exile: 1989-93
  • 6. Prison III
  • 7. Childhood: 1947-56
  • 8. Prison IV
  • 9. Lost: 1956-66
  • 10. Prison V
  • 11. Deployment: 1966-69
  • 12. Dictatorship: 1969-76
  • 13. Gwangju: 1976-85
  • 14. Prison VI
  • Epilogue
  • About the Translators
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this sweeping narrative, Korean novelist Sok-yong (Princess Bari) recounts his years as a political prisoner in South Korea and looks back at his lifelong political activism. In 1947, the author's family fled North Korea to the South as communism tightened its grip on the country. While his parents worked to support the family, a teenage Sok-yong traveled with his friends throughout South Korea and later quit school to join the military. He details how the atrocities he witnessed during his service in Vietnam informed his political writing in the 1970s and '80s, which played a significant part in fueling the democracy movement in South Korea. Most potent are the recollections of his five years in the Seoul Detention Center, where he was imprisoned following a trip to North Korea in 1993. After years of endless interrogation and isolation, he was pardoned in 1998 as part of a group amnesty effort by the newly elected president. In reflecting on his "life as a writer in the prison of time, language, and this Cold War museum that is the divided Korean peninsula," Sok-Yong reveals a moving picture of one man's attempts to live within the ambiguities of freedom. This inspiring account shouldn't be missed. (Aug.)

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A captivating depiction of a Korean novelist's time as a political prisoner and the belief in humanity that sustained him throughout the ordeal. Hwang (b. 1943) is known for his elegant, philosophically self-reflective writing. In this sprawling, detailed chronicle of his life and various imprisonments, he delivers a vivid depiction of some of the historical currents that shaped Korea in the 20th century. Hwang was imprisoned in Seoul after visiting North Korea, which he fled with his family as a child. Upon returning to South Korea, he was accused of espionage and imprisoned via the National Security Act. Many literary figures and activists relentlessly argued for his release, seeing the act as a facade to suppress free speech and imprison activists unjustly. Hwang's extraordinary life is so dense with history and characters that his lengthy account can be difficult to follow, but the descriptions of his time as a prisoner will move readers. The story oscillates among Hwang's imprisonment, life outside prison, exile, time as a soldier in the Vietnam War, and recollections from his childhood. The author recounts eating noodles with the former North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung; how the "boxy cars of the East mingled with the sleek sedans of the West amid echoing cheers" as the Berlin Wall fell in front of him; and how his story, among others, made Susan Sontag "shed tears of anger." Hwang peppers the narrative with prescriptive visions for relations between North Korea and the rest of the world. He is a consummate storyteller, and even those unfamiliar with the topic will find well-written historical exposition and nuanced characterizations. Hwang clearly appreciates the humanity of those he encounters, including prisoners on death row and even Kim Il-sung, contending that no one is beyond moral repair. Such considerations underscore how penal systems are often designed to dehumanize incarcerated individuals--but not Hwang. A potent history of a remarkable life. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.