My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Richard E. Kim’s The Martyred was published to great sales and acclaim in 1964. It dominated the bestseller list, earned comparisons to Camus and Dostoevsky, and boasted blurbs from Pearl S. Buck and Philip Roth. Kim was born in what is now North Korea in the 1930s, in the waning days of Japanese domination of the peninsula, and he fought on the side of the south during the Korean War. In 1955, he came to the U.S., and studied history, political science, writing, and Asian languages and literatures at a multitude of prestigious institutions—perhaps most notably the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and given what we now know about aspects of the Workshop’s political goals, the anticommunist novelist’s presence is, leaving his talent aside, perhaps no surprise. But Kim’s talent is considerable, and it is good that Penguin Classics rescued The Martyred in 2011 from its undeserved post-Cold-War oblivion, not only because the consequences of the unfinished Korean War confront the world every day in the news, but also because it is a very good novel.
The Martyred is set during the very early days of the Korean War and narrated by Captain Lee, a former university professor of humanities now serving in the army. It opens in Pyongyang during the brief phases in which the South held the city, and it concerns the execution of twelve Christian ministers by the Communists on the eve of the war. Lee’s superior, the seemingly cynical (and anti-Christian) pragmatist Colonel Chang, wishes to use the execution as propaganda against “the Reds,” but he is worried that two survivors of the mass execution may have survived by collaborating or capitulating to the Communists. If word of that were to leak, it would harm the morale of the Christian Koreans whose spirit is needed in the fight against Communism. From this premise, a fast-paced narrative of investigation proceeds as Lee attempts to determine what actually happened to the ministers and whether or not in particular the saintly and tubercular Rev. Shin is telling the truth as his story about the massacre shifts. Furthermore, the stakes are personal as well as political, since one of the murdered ministers is the religiously fanatical father of Lee’s best friend from school and now military colleague, the rebellious atheist Captain Park.
As my summary should indicate, the thriller plot, while effective, is something of a veneer for a novel of ideas in the mode of the aforementioned Dostoevsky and Camus. The novel is, in fact, dedicated to Camus and shares an epigraph with The Rebel, just as its dialogues on theodicy and endurance clearly take inspiration from The Plague as well as from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. The characters spend much of the novel in disputation about the nature of faith and evil:
“Your god, any god, all the gods in the world—what do they care for us? Your god—he does not understand our sufferings, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with our miseries, murders, starving people, wars, wars, and all the horrors!”
“Courage,” he said gently, laying his hands on my shoulders. “Courage, Captain. We must hope against hopelessness. We must dare to hope against despair because we are men.”
While respectful to Christianity as a way of giving significance to Korea’s nearly unendurable modern experience of war and pain, the novel ultimately recommends an ethic of stoical endurance beyond all ideology and abstraction, the moderation praised by Camus in The Rebel. The last author we see Captain Lee consult is Aurelius, and in the end he pledges his loyalty not to God but to his suffering nation.
Even novels of ideas need more than ideas, though: they need sights and sounds and smells to give body to thought. In this, Kim acquits himself beautifully. The Martyred is expertly paced, its dialogues punctuated cinematically by long shots of the devastated wartime landscape, its descriptive prose a midcentury masterpiece of quaking minimalist restraint, bleakness just barely haunted by a nearly forgotten promise of transcendence, intimated by the church bell that rings at intervals in the novel’s ruined city:
Across the street the church bell clanged. I opened the window. From the white-blue November sky of North Korea, a cold gust swept down the debris-ridden slope, whipping up here and there dazzling snow flurries, smashing against the ugly, bullet-riddled buildings of Pyongyang. People who had been digging in the ruins of their homes stopped working. They straightened up and looked toward the top of the slope, at the remains of the nearly demolished Central Church and then at the gray carcass of the cross-topped bell tower where the bell was clanging. They gazed at each other as if they understood the esoteric message of the bell.
Since The Martyred is not very well known, I will keep this to a brief review rather than a full-scale interpretation and suggest only that you read it if you admire novels of passionate dialectic and harsh realism, as well as if you want a fictional supplement to, or aesthetic consolation for, the bad news about the prolonged continuation (let us hope not to the death) of the last century’s wars.