“One Left” by Kim Soom

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A Korean nonagenarian learns on the news that the last remaining “comfort woman” is on her deathbed. The narrator, unnamed until the end of the book, is determined to meet this last victim: she wants to know if she knew the woman from 70 years earlier. She also wants to assure her that she’s not in fact the last one left. The narrator has never told anyone about her past—not even her siblings and their children; it’s finally a chance to talk about it.

Kim Soom’s One Left is, as surprising as it may seem given the enduring topicality of the subject matter, reportedly the first Korean novel published centered around the girls and women forced into sex slavery during World War II. Commonly (and euphemistically) called “comfort” women, many were no more than thirteen or fourteen when they were either sold or kidnapped into sexual slavery. Some were as young as eleven or twelve. “Comfort” of course had nothing to do  with the trauma and terror these girls lived through then and for the rest of their lives, if they survived. Most did not.

The translators explain in an afterword that this subject has been so painful for Koreans that perhaps the whole country has suffered PTSD and could not address it in anything other than non-fiction. This novel is evidently the exception that proves the rule.

 

One Left: A Novel, Kim Soom, Bruce Fulton (trans), Ju-Chan Fulton (trans)
One Left: A Novel, Kim Soom, Bruce Fulton (trans), Ju-Chan Fulton (trans)

Kim bases her narrative on real testimonies of victims. The narrator estimates that 30,000 men violated her over the seven years she was held captive in Manchuria. She has never been able to marry or have children, a fate that befell many of the survivors. They are so broken—physically and emotionally—that they can’t risk more loss should others learn of their past. But there are so few survivors. It’s estimated that 200,000 Korean girls were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese army and only 20,000 survived at the end of the war. The narrator goes over this math in her mind decades after the war concluded. For many reasons, victims stayed silent until 1991 when Kim Haksun, the first woman to speak up, told the world about her teenage years.

Even as a ninety-three year old woman, the narrator can never forget the hell she lived through in a shabby building in Manchuria.

 

Resting her broom against the veranda, she squats next to the moth. The moth looks like a uterus. Her uterus, the army of ants sinking their tiny teeth into it and holding on for dear life reminding her of the line of Japanese soldiers jostling one another while awaiting their turn with her. She begins to gag.

 

Kim’s powerful storytelling similarly renders a portrait of the barbarism of the war.

 

The soldiers had just returned from the battle and smelled like cow dung. Their red, crater-like eyes still bore a bloodthirsty tinge, and they were rabid as hunting dogs.

 

 

One Left is not the first novel about “comfort women”; it is the first Korean novel, and unlike at least some novels published on the subject in English, there are no soft edges, no Japanese caught up in a war they didn’t believe in, no attempts at rescue. The narrator never encounters even one soldier who asks after her.

When the war is over, it takes the narrator years to return home. Numerous other Korean girls and women were killed by their Japanese handlers before the Soviet army moved into the areas with “comfort stations”. If there’s no evidence, there is no war crime.

It may seem cliché to state that a novel is necessary. But this one really is.

The narrator lacks names for where she had lived during the war and what she was forced into doing. She even lost her own name. Once in Manchuria, haha, the term for mother in Japanese, gave the Korean girls Japanese names. These names would change whenever haha pleased.

But as the narrator heads to the hospital to see the last victim, her name comes back to her: P’unggil. Her name is P’unggil.

 

Back when she was P’unggil, she was just another young teen.
      As a child she believed the most frightening things were natural disasters that involved darkness, drought, or flooding. But after she turned 13 she learned the most frightening things are human beings.

 

It may seem cliché to state that a novel is necessary. But this one really is.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.