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 know the answer for their own peace of mind. Why the minister withholds the truth, the way he reveals it, its ambiguity, all profoundly affect the narrator, nearly all the other characters, the people of the city, and to some extent even the army and the people of South Korea. If the answer and its consequences were not politically and psychologically credible to the reader, the novel would fail just as a novel. If it were not spiritually convincing, it would fail as a parable too. Happily it succeeds on both counts.
Technically the characters are not developed with the detail and breadth which are customary in realistic fiction, so that, if the reader does not see them in depth, they will appear thin and insubstantial. Because the novelist uses all his technical resources to focus upon the one discovery, what is discovered must be important and subtle enough to give significance to everything else in the book—to make the long anticipation worth the suspense and to make the subsequent changes in the characters credible. Everything in this book must exist in depth to exist at all. If the reader does not stand at the right vantage point, as it were, if he does not have the right angle of vision, the book will no doubt strike him as a sort of Graham Greeneish, surrealistic thriller which tips its hand too soon, so that the last part will seem obvious and flat. But from the right angle, the book is subtle and strong, and the last third or so, though imperfect, is not unworthy of the first two-thirds.
The vital discovery is of an act which is seen as being essentially religious, but the novel is in the realistic mode, dealing only with credible events naturally motivated. This means that the novelist was confronted with the task of persuading the reader that what happened and the effects of what happened could and do also exist in the natural order of things. This task he accomplishes by providing both sufficient motive from history for the official military investigation, and sufficient tension in the narrator’s very style of writing for his personal interest to seem convincing to the reader. The consequences of the discovery, which occupy the last portion of the novel, remain ambiguous, so that the story retains most of its tension. Most, but not quite all. There is a certain slackening at the end as several of the secondary characters resolve their doubts and take a single emotional attitude toward the minister and his deed. At the very end the narrator himself bursts out with an exalted love of country, which is about on the order of Stephen Daedalus’s at the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—stirring but not so stirring to the reader as temporary to the character. Perhaps a voluntary exile’s sentiments about his homeland ought never to be unambiguous, at least at the end of a novel.
Mr. Kim dedicates The Martyred to the memory of Camus. However, I find that both fictionally and thematically it belongs in the company of three other spare, subtle fictions rich in psychological-spiritual depth: two Catholic—Unamuno’s Saint Manuel the Good and Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest, and one Protestant—Gide’s The Pastoral Symphony.