In "Black Flower," Young-Ha Kim takes readers on a journey, based on a little-known piece of history, back to the beginning of the 20th century. Russia and Japan were at war and Korea was about to become Japan's colony, "slowly fading, like a drop of ink fallen into the water."
It is 1905. We are introduced to an assortment of characters from the breadth of a disappearing Korean society: a shaman, a thief, a priest, an orphan, an aristocrat and his family, peasants, former soldiers. More than 1,000 souls board the Ilford, each with secrets and a fervent longing for freedom. The Continental Colonization Co. has promised that "work, money and warm food" will be theirs when they get to Mexico, the country that, on the map, looks ominously "like a sunken, empty belly."
On the ocean, once-rigid class distinctions become meaningless as the grim, overcrowded conditions on the vessel force the passengers to survive, if they can, at the most basic level. It is after this lengthy passage, which serves as a kind of existential purgatory, that they land months later in Mexico, still hopeful that their final destination will be paradise.
They soon discover they have unwittingly entered into a life of indentured servitude -- working from dawn to dusk alongside Mayan workers in the fields of henequen, a plant the Koreans come to call "dragon tongue orchid" due to the plant's harsh leaves that are studded with "countless hard, pointy spikes." Henequen is the raw material for shipping rope, which is just one of the commodities playing a key role in the ruthless expansion of colonialism.
Kim's objective tone in this novel recalls the social realism of the proletarian or "factory" literature of Korea in the 1920s and 1930s. Readers will empathize with the struggles and passions of the characters, yet won't be allowed to forget the backdrop of political developments, as in the opening of chapter 67: "A year passed. Francisco Madero was now president. The United States did not like him, and the political situation was chaotic." At times there feels like too much of this flat summary.
"Can a nation disappear forever?" asks Ijeong, the orphan who has come of age in a new land. This ghostly inquiry is at the center of this story, a tale of collective loss, political revolution and the individual quest for self-determination. In this clear-eyed epic, Kim brings us the souls caught up on the ground of this larger drama: the officials and lackeys, aristocrats and beggars, overseers and workers, soldiers and maidens.
Sun Yung Shin's most recent book, "Rough, and Savage," was published by Coffee House Press. She is at www.sunyungshin.com.