California Literary Review

Knife Song Korea by Richard Selzer


August 11th, 2009 at 12:13 pm

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Knife Song Korea by Richard Selzer
Knife Song Korea
by Richard Selzer
State University of New York Press, 143 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Love In A Time Of War

U.S. Army physician draftee Sloane (no other name is given), is the protagonist of Knife Song Korea. The story deals with the gritty realities and occasionally, stark tragedy of practicing medicine in an isolated third world setting, Korea during the Korean War. His circumstances are complicated by the logistical uncertainties of a supply line that stretches halfway around the world. His assistants, Jang and Yoon are Koreans of uncertain background and training but possessed of willing hearts and a certain rough and ready competence.

On arriving at his small and isolated army base in Korea, Sloane is met by Larry Olsen, the army physician he is replacing. Olsen speaks to him as follows; “There’s no roof that doesn’t leak. The rats are fearless. Flies rule the country. Everybody steals. Orphans, refugees everywhere. They’re coming down from the north. There’s no equipment to speak of. There’s no sterilizer. And the dirt, the vermin….It’s yours now.”

The doctor’s medical clinic is a Quonset hut that possessed the “blind, bloated, indifferent look of a swollen slug.” There he meets one medical challenge after another; removing a melon–sized goiter from a Korean national under local anesthesia, treating a compound fracture under appalling conditions, attempting, unsuccessfully, to transport an eight-year-old boy with advanced peritonitis back to his surgery through deluge and flood. Sloane eventually falls ill himself with amoebic dysentery which is then compounded by malaria, illnesses concerning which he ruefully comments, “combined to establish a kinship between the Koreans and himself.”

The story opens with a MASH-like tale of war’s grim realities, and similarly, is spotted with gallows humor: When he was ordered to assist the chaplain on Sundays because of rudimentary piano playing skills, he demurred as follows: “’I have a dispensary that is fucking full of patients,’ Sloane croaked in a low tone. ’From which I have been dragged away in order to practice hymns. On the organ which I do not play. As a tribute to a Supreme Being in whom I don’t believe. In front of a congregation I am going to treat for clap Monday morning.’” Yet the story evolves briskly into much more than military farce. It is more accurately a classic tragedy involving forbidden love.

The object of Sloane’s affection—and lust—is Shin Young Hae. Sloane first saw her, a twenty-year-old woman dressed in spotless white skirt and brown and gold brocaded jacket as a patient in his clinic. There has been such an absence of beauty in his life, “that (Sloane) had all but forgotten it; forgotten, too, that there is a stirring in the body that is not painful.” Selzer’s references to and description of the developing relationship with Shin are often lyrically beautiful. Sick call is held for locals in the afternoon. Shin is one of the patients who waits to see him, the only trained medical person for miles. On examining Shin, who complains of an unrelenting cough, he first hears rales, coarse breath sounds on both sides of her chest that demonstrate congestion. He realized intuitively what he was dealing with, even before he tapped on her chest to locate the areas of her lungs that had already collapsed from pulmonary tuberculosis. His diagnosis was confirmed by microscopic examination of her sputum, which demonstrated the red-stained tuberculosis bacillus. “….He had touched her then in a different way, curiously at first, then with obvious hunger. Startled, she had arched and bent away like a small wild beast. Then she had seen his quivering mouth and the pain in his face and had held out her hand. Sick and exhausted, they clung together for a moment.”

Writing, attempting to communicate with Kate, his wife, who is somewhere in the world he left behind, becomes increasingly problematical. She resides in a place now so remote from Sloane’s realities that her world becomes unreal, a shadow world with his wife Kate as specter. Kate, though far away, “stands between him and the soft warm center that was Shin.”

Sloane, infatuated by the Shin’s ethereal beauty, repeatedly visits her in her village during the night. Only too late did he realize the brutal ostracism she suffered from the other villagers because of his nighttime presence. She came to be held in greater contempt by the residents than the women in a nearby location who were in fact prostitutes. Shin, after all, was one of their own, a working peasant girl of whom certain virtues were expected,

As this story evolves, it is tempting for the reader to moralize, to ask, “Whatever were they thinking?” Yet Knife Song Korea is a tale of two lost souls in a world turned upside down, one remarkably devoid of warmth, beauty and love. It is consistent with the arc of the story that they reach out to each other in the most primal way. The multiple conflicts and contradictions, moral and otherwise of Knife Song Korea propel the tale to a compelling conclusion.

Selzer’s story cries out for comparison to Giocomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” with Shin as Cio-Cio San (Madama) and Sloane as B. F. Pinkerton, the U.S. Navy Lieutenant who so sorely traduced Madama. One wonders if the choice of names for Sloan’s distant wife, “Kate” was a conscious or unconscious tribute to Lt. Pinkerton’s Caucasian wife who was also named Kate.

The theme of star-crossed love is ancient and recurrent, dating from the Gilgamesh Epic of over 4,000 years ago to present day literature. It persists because it is because it so versatile and appealing, because it tells us something of who we are, of how we came to be a people. Selzer’s gift for story telling, his deft characterizations and vivid descriptions make it his and make it new once again.

At 143 pages, Selzer’s latest book is arguably a novella rather than a novel, a form never as popular in the U.S. as in Europe. Yet a number of novella’s are among the classics of U.S. literature: Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men, and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus to name just three. Knife Song Korea may come to join that distinguished collection. It is a lapidary work of exceptional artistry as well as a valuable addition to the body of notable works by physician-writers.

Richard Selzer is an M.D., (born 1928) and is formerly a surgeon and a professor at Yale Medical. He is the author of multiple books of short stories and is also renowned as an essayist. His awards for his writing include the National Magazine Award, a Pushcart Prize, and a Guggenheim fellowship as well as a nomination for a PEN/Faulkner Award. He resides in New Haven, Connecticut.

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