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Examining Questions of Faith and Meaning in a Time of War
By Richard E. Kim
George Braziller, New York, N.Y.; 1964
ISBN # (not available)
Review by Jerry Winzig
Richard E. Kim's first novel, The Martyred, published in 1964, is not a comforting book. Set in Pyongyang during the first eight months of the Korean war, the story centers around fourteen Christian ministers that were rounded up shortly before the South Korean army occupied the city. Twelve of the 14 had been shot, but two, Mr. Shin and Mr. Hann, had been spared.
The story is told by Captain Lee, a teacher before he was drafted and assigned to the South Korean army's political intelligence unit. Lee's commanding officer, Colonel Chang, wants to use the ministers' deaths as propaganda to further the war effort, even though he does not consider himself a believing Christian. When Chang orders Lee to investigate the two surviving ministers, Lee quickly finds this is no easy "whodonit." Instead, he and all the other principal characters quickly find themselves immersed in timeless and difficult questions about the nature of truth and compassion in the midst the cataclysm of war.
Although there is much suffering, there is no clear hero or villain in the story. Colonel Chang at first appears to be nasty and somewhat brutish, but later we discover a depth of compassion we did not expect. Chaplain Koh, who deserted his Pyongyang congregation to join the war effort, is a suspicious and enigmatic figure, but we eventually discover he has a different side.
Lee's best friend, Lieutenant Park, is transferred to Pyongyang to help with memorial service because he is the son of one of the murdered ministers. Park is no willing participant, however. He has been estranged from his religiously fanatical father for years and ostracized because of his lack of faith. His feelings towards his father and his church are intensely conflicted.
However, the most enigmatic figure in the novel is Mr. Shin, who first denies having been present with the other ministers were killed and then publicly (and falsely) confesses he betrayed the other ministers.
Kim offers no easy answers. His book is not an easy affirmation of the efficacy of Christian faith; Shin's despair is too great for that. At the same time, the novel doesn't offer comfort for unbelievers either. Instead, there are hard questions about war and peace, about good and evil. The evils of the Communist regime North Korea are apparent, but there is incredible pathos and sadness in the decision of the South Korean and American forces to relinquish control of liberated Pyongyang without a fight, abandoning Pyongyang's residents, who welcomed the South as liberators, to an unimaginable fate.
The dilemma of Major Minn, the Army doctor responsible for the retreating army's field hospital in the last days of liberated Pyongyang are especially poignant. Having lived through the fall of Seoul as a civilian earlier in the war, when the South Korean and American forces had retreated south, leaving civilians behind, he does not know what to do when he is ordered to retreat from Pyongyang when he has injured men who cannot be moved.
Kim's book raises fundamental questions of faith and belief. It asks some of the same questions Job raised in the Old Testament, but our modern ears don't always hear how difficult those questions are when we ready the Bible. So Kim has the unbelieving Park read from the book of Job during the memorial service, even while he doubts his own participation in the service.
The Martyred is a powerful and unsettling search for meaning in the midst of the despair and desolation of war. While it is no longer in print, you can find hardcover and paperback versions at www.barnesandnoble.com and www.amazon.com.
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