‘Sad Peninsula’ by Mark Sampson

Sad Peninsula coverReviewed by David Burgess McGregor

At first glance the tacky world of partying ESL teachers in Seoul hardly seems like the right place to look for a responsible perspective on the sexual atrocities committed against Korean women in World War II, but this is what one-time Winnipeger Mark Sampson sets out to achieve in his second novel. Sad Peninsula follows his well-received Off Book (2007), as well as a healthy string of book reviews and publications in literary journals.

The novel gradually intertwines the story of a Korean woman named Eun-young with the travails of a Canadian ESL teacher named Michael. Eun-young’s narrative begins in World War II, where she is forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army. Michael is a disgraced journalist who moves to Seoul in 2004 to teach English as a means of escaping his crumbling life in Canada. Sampson consistently trades chapters between these characters, and it is not until the introduction of an intermediary character, Jin, that the stories begin to overlap in a concrete way (Jin is Eun-young’s great-niece and becomes Michael’s girlfriend).

Shifting between the often-unexceptional life of an ESL instructor and the detailed accounts of Eun-young’s tortured years as a sex-slave is not always an easy move to make. The details of Eun-young’s suffering are intensely graphic; she is raped up to 40 times a day and violently abused by soldiers and doctors. Like Roberto Bolano’s harrowing The Part About the Crimes in 2666, Sampson catalogues violence as a way of remembering – witnessing – what was un-witnessed. Consequently, the shifts back to Michael’s chapters can feel like a buffer or an escape, perhaps even threatening to make Michael’s story appear naïve or inconsequential in the face of cruel atrocities.

What makes the chapter structure interesting and ultimately rewarding is Sampson’s ability to find strange echoes between different contexts. In a scene near the end of the novel, Michael meets a couple of acquaintances at the apartment of another Canadian ex-pat named Rob Cruise (a charismatic, chauvinistic, sex-addicted former school teacher). When Michael arrives he is shhh’d by his friends as they sit and listen to Rob Cruise having sex with a Korean woman in the other room. There is an unmistakable comparison between the descriptions of Japanese soldiers lined up outside of the rape stalls and the group of foreign listening men. This scene is characteristic of Sampson’s reincarnative comparisons.

Sampson’s visual and situational rhyming connects so-called minor abuses with major ones. In the Rob Cruise scene the reader sits alongside Michael, and though he voices his opposition to the situation he remains in the room, complicit in an invasion of privacy that is touched with sexual aggression. Because of our knowledge of Eun-young’s story, the repressed past sits in the room as well, and we are forced to ask ourselves how the situations resemble one another. Sampson puts the connection in the hands of the reader to grapple with and consider, without becoming heavy-handed or simplistic.

While the dual-narrative approach offers a good deal of generative comparisons, there are moments where it feels like the author has to put real work into keeping both stories in the same novel. Michael finds out about Eun-young’s story through his girlfriend Jin and becomes obsessed with the plight of “comfort” women. His interest becomes a secret journalistic endeavor that he refers to as his “other project.” The effort to balance his life and his “other project” speaks to what the novel itself is pursuing and occasionally struggling to keep together: a novel about Michael and a conviction to shed light on the suppressed history of “comfort” women.

The combining of divergent content makes Sad Peninsula a hybrid novel. Eun-young’s experiences start out as historical fiction but morph into a contemporary reconciliation narrative. Michael’s story feels very Canadian, and very contemporary, but is intertwined with a past that is completely foreign to him. What ultimately keeps the novel working is the author’s self-consciousness about engaging with subject matter that is culturally and temporally remote. Though a male character hovering around his early thirties, battling fears of wasted potential is a familiar figure in Canadian fiction, the convention is made more interesting because of its placement in relation to the “other” story. Michael’s character also puts the potentially problematic western perspective of the author into a different relationship with the Korean content of the book.

There are certainly points where Michael’s thoughts and actions feel a bit easy or a bit familiar, but reading Michael as a kind of surrogate for Sampson’s own path to the story of “comfort” women helps to show the author’s respect for the subject matter, while still admitting that he has ethical qualms about being a self-appointed teller of someone else’s trauma. The ease of Sampson’s prose also helps to disassociate the novel from a clumsy handling of the topic. As Michael sits down with some notes that he has made about “comfort” women he is overcome with the impetus to write Eun-young’s story in his own words. The narration reads:

And in that instant, I feel like I hold the entire thing – every last word of what I want to write – in my mind at once. It’s there, as real as anything that has ever happened to me. Real because it is so unreal. Please forgive me. I beseech this to Jin, to Eun-young, to myself.

The complexity of the author’s role in Sad Peninsula is just one example of how the novel is built on a web of images where meanings stack up and blur into one another. For example, Michael is instructed to punish students for speaking Korean in the classroom, echoing Imperialist suppression by the Japanese during the war:

“David,” stands facing the corner of the room…I caught him speaking, for the third time tonight, a quick burst of Korean to one of his buddies. The Canadian flag I’ve tapped to my wall hangs just above his head.

Repressed acts attempt to push their way to the surface in search of recognition. These images suggest festering ripples that have a diverse affect on the lives of the characters as well as society. In response to these repressions, Sad Peninsula is about spreading empathy and responsibility through recognition. A Japanese character near the end of the novel explains, “I am not guilty of anything; but I am still responsible.” Sampson is attempting to draw attention to both the necessity and the possibility of addressing atrocities.

Dundurn Press has done a nice job of presenting Sad Peninsula. Courtney Horner’s NYRB-esque cover design features a rectangular title-box floating over a photograph of Korean text shot in shallow focus. The contrast between focus and obscurity in the image tastefully echoes the political themes surrounding Korean language in the book, while the muted grayish-brown colours gently whisper ‘historical content’ rather than scream it. Though the breadth of content, characters, and setting sometimes threaten to burst the novel’s attractively bound spine, Sampson manages to keep everything afloat. The tension of the balancing act ultimately contributes to the experience of the novel rather than detracting from it.

Michael’s narrative is about finding a story – Eun-young’s is about sharing hers. Both the search and what is sought are alternately displayed, allowing the reader to find similarities and comparisons that enhance the meaning of each narrative strand. Ultimately, Sad Peninsula is an intelligent novel that embraces complexity as it weaves together divergent times and cultures in challenging and surprising ways.

Dundurn | 352 pages | $22.99 | paper | ISBN # 978-1459709256

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