Korea is radically different from Latin America in many respects. Unlike Latin America, for example, Korea was never directly colonized or exploited by Western countries. Unlike Latin America, Christianity, too, has never played a role in the advent of Western imperialism in the case of Korea. On the contrary, Western missionaries benevolently contributed to the modernization of Korea by building schools, hospitals and orphanages in the early and mid-20th century. Therefore, it was sheer nonsense and a silly mistake that our leftist political leaders imported in the 1980s the Dependency Theory and the Liberation Theology from Latin America to blame the West for the Korean predicament.
Nevertheless, there are some striking similarities between Korea and Latin America as well. For example: right-wing military dictatorship, the leftist resistance, the Civil War, entrapment in ideology, repetition of the past, ultra-nationalism, populism, isolation from the outside world, chronic antagonism between conservatives and radicals, brief economic prosperity and constant political turmoil, to name but a few. It is so evident, especially when you read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s monumental novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” with reference to Korea.
The novel, written in the narrative technique of magic realism, is an account of seven generations of the Buendia family and Macondo, a fictional city built by the family’s patriarch, Jose Arcadio Buendia. Originally the town was invented from the dream of its founder as a utopian place surrounded by water. Soon, however, Macondo becomes a closed, insulated society, isolated from the outside world.
Likewise, the Buendia family, too, is a closed system, symbolized by incest. Its patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendia marries Ursula Iguaran, who is his first cousin. The custom of incest persists in the Buendia family. There is a curse in Macondo that if you commit incest, you will have a baby with a pig’s tail. At the end of the novel, sure enough, the last descendant of the family gives birth to a baby with the tail of a pig, bringing about the collapse of the Buendia family.
As time goes on, Macondo is forced to open its doors to the outside world. First, Macondo is exposed to the government of Colombia, and as a result, becomes entangled with political turmoil. The people of Macondo are now divided by a conservative party and a liberal party that antagonize each other so much that eventually civil war breaks out. Col. Aureliano Buendia, the second son of Jose Arcadio Buendia, wages war against the conservative Colombian government. Inspired by leftist ideology, Col. Buendia even tries to execute his friend in cold blood. Ultimately, however, he becomes tired of it and signs a peace treaty with the conservatives. This irresponsible action results in the fall of Macondo.
Meanwhile, Macondo turns into a place where people are forced to choose between the two antagonizing political ideologies, conservative and progressive. It becomes a suffocating place where the possibility for an alternative point of view or a third way is denied. It also becomes a town where people are obsessed with and controlled by the past. To make matters worse, personal vendetta and political retribution are rampant, and violence is common in Macondo.
Then comes Western technology and with it Western capitalism. The railroad is introduced to Macondo, bringing automobiles, companies and factories in its wake and economic prosperity to the town. Rapid industrialization comes to serene Macondo. As a result, the clash between the capitalists and workers is inevitable. When thousands of workers go on a strike, the Buendia family lets the government army massacre them ruthlessly.
These notions are all too familiar to the Korean people. We, too, have experienced similar events such as the tyranny of a right-wing military government, blindly self-righteous leftist activists, rapid industrialization, a sudden upsurge of economic growth and wealth, workers’ strikes, enslavement by ideology, and blind hatred toward others. Like the people of Maconda, we have also witnessed the repetition of the past by making the same mistakes again and again.
As for the title of the novel, “One Hundred Years” is a century and also signifies “an era” or “a person’s lifetime.” As for “solitude,” it comes from the isolation and alienation of those who are cut off from the outside world. You can also feel “solitude” if you are not capable of loving others. During the Joseon era, Korea was called “the Hermit Kingdom” because it was secluded and isolated from the outside world. Modern Korea began about a hundred years ago. Unfortunately, however, Korea is still not an open country in the eyes of foreigners.
If we do not want to end up like the Buendia family and the utopian town Macondo they built and then destroyed, we should be open to the outside world and overcome the ultra-nationalism that chants “Uri-kkiri.” All nations are interdependent and no country can exist alone these days. Also, we should learn to love others even though they are different from us. Then we can truly overcome our “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and distinguished visiting professor at George Washington University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org –Ed.