A Moral Tale

The Martyred

by Richard E. Kim
Braziller, 316 pp., $4.50

In contemporary American fiction, Protestantism is commonly assumed to be either a hypocritical formality (something Vassar girls put up with till they are emancipated) or a pathological release for the underprivileged (something that goes on way back in the Georgia hills or in Harlem storefront churches). But as for its being a possible faith which credible and in some ways admirable characters of the higher classes can define themselves within or against—this is practically unheard of in recent fiction, European as well as American. On the evidence of the fiction, true spiritual fervor and agony should be attributed only to Catholics, Jews, socialists, and believers in the religion of art; Protestants aren’t even worth looking at.

In Korea, though, things seem to be a bit different: The Martyred is a firstrate novel by a young Korean, Richard Kim, who served during the Korean War as an officer in the Korean army, much of the time as a liaison officer to the U.S. army. (He has written the book in English and lives in the U.S.) Most of the action takes place in Pyongyang in the weeks following the United Nations occupation of the city in October 1950; at the end, the Chinese having entered the war, the U.N. forces have been driven back, and the action of the book concludes in Seoul in May 1951. Mr. Kim has not tried in his novel to give proportional representation to all the important kinds of conflict and suffering contained in this material. He has touched them in, to be sure, but what he has chosen to emphasize is the spiritual trouble generated in his characters. These people are of several faiths and non-faiths and of a considerable spread of moral hues. But what defines them in the novel and what they see as defining them in their lives is a highly complex Christian act performed by a Presbyterian minister.

As befits a Protestant story, the novel is spare in its technique, giving only what is needed to understand character, background, motive, and fable. The book is structured on a discovery-and-consequences plot of the barest kind. But the very starkness of the story lends to the narrative an imaginative urgency consonant with the political and spiritual urgency of the situation in which the people find themselves. The form beautifully fits the content.

The story is this. The narrator, a non-Christian of great moral seriousness whose deepest faith is in trumpeting the truth, finds himself as an officer in military intelligence assigned to the task of discovering the minister’s secret. Fourteen Protestant ministers in Pyongyang had been seized by the Communists, twelve were shot, one went mad, the last survived. Why was the survivor spared? Because he informed? Divine intervention? Accident? Error? The military needs to know the answer because on it may, and in fact does, hinge the morale of a large number of the people of the city. The narrator and to varying degrees all the other characters come to need to…

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