What Is The Author, Hwang Sun-Won Trying To Communicate With The Rhetorical Question, “But Today, How Could He Offer A Cigarette To A Fellow Like This?”

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Chatnoir123 | 22:33 Mon 02nd Nov 2020 | Arts & Literature
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by Hwang Sun-won Translated by Peter H. Lee & Published in 1953

The northern village at the border of the Thirty-eighth Parallel (1) was snugly settled under the high, bright autumn sky.
One white gourd lay against another on the dirt floor of an empty farmhouse. The occasional village elders first put out their bamboo pipes before passing by, and the children, too, turned aside some distance off. Their faces were ridden with fear.

(1) 38th parallel: The boundary between North Korea and South Korea. The line was chosen by U.S. military planners near the end of World War II as a temporary division of Korea, but the Cold War resulted in the formalization of a separate U.S.-oriented regime in South Korea and a Communist regime in North Korea.

The village as a whole showed few traces of destruction from the war (2), but it did not seem like the same village Song-sam had known as a boy.
At the foot of a chestnut grove on the hill behind the village he stopped and climbed a chestnut tree. Somewhere far back in his mind he heard the old man with a wen shout, “You bad boy, you’re climbing up my chestnut tree again!”
The old man must have passed away, for among the few village elders Song-sam had met, the old man was not to be found. Holding the trunk of the tree, Song-sam gazed at the blue sky for a while. Some chestnuts fell to the ground as the dry clusters opened of their own accord.
In front of the farmhouse that had been turned into a public peace-police office, a young man stood, tied up. He seemed to be a stranger, so Song-sam approached him to have a close look. He was taken aback; it was none other than his boyhood playmate, Tok-chae.
Song-sam sat down on the dirt floor and lit a cigarette. Tok-chae was to be escorted to Chongdan by one of the peace policemen.
After a time, Song-sam lit a new cigarette from the first and stood up.
“I’ll take the fellow with me.”
Tok-chae, his face averted, refused to look at Song-sam. They left the village.
Song-sam kept on smoking, but the tobacco had no taste. He just kept drawing in the smoke and blowing it out. Then suddenly he thought that Tok-chae, too, must want a puff. He thought of the days when they used to share dried gourd leaves behind walls, hidden from the adults. But today, how could he offer a cigarette to a fellow like this?
Once when they were small, he went with Tok-chae to steal some chestnuts from the grandpa with wen. It was Song-sam’s turn to go up the tree. Suddenly there came shouts from the old man. He slipped and fell to the ground. Song-sam got chestnut needles all over his bottom, but he kept on running. It was only when they reached a safe place where the old man could not overtake them that he turned his bottom to Tok-chae. Plucking out those needles hurt so much that he could not keep tears from welling up in his eyes. Tok-chae produced a fistful of chestnuts from his pocket and thrust them into Song-sam’s…Song-sam threw away the cigarette he had just lit. Then he made up his mind not to light another while he was escorting Tok-chae.

(2) The war: This refers to the Korean War, a war between North Korea (with the support of Communist China and the Soviet Union) and South Korea (with the support of the United Nations, principally from the Capitalist United States). The war began on 25 June 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea following a series of clashes along the border. The fighting ended on 27 July 1953, when an armistice agreement was signed. The agreement created the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to separate North and South Korea, and allowed the return of prisoners. However, no peace treaty was ever signed, and the two Koreas are technically still at war, engaged in a frozen conflict.


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