Authors: Young-ha Kim
Ijeong threw aside his gun and raised his hands. An army officer ordered his soldiers to bind the four of them. Then he walked ahead of them. When they reached the swamp he told them to stop. The government soldiers fired their guns one after the other from behind, enjoying it. Ijeong was the last to fall. His knees, face, and stomach were driven into the swamp.
Bak Gwangsu never escaped from Temple IV. He had always liked that place. He watched the sun set from the top. When the popcorn sound of gunfire from the north face and over by the reservoir stopped and the government troops confirmed the results of the battle, a few soldiers tied ropes and climbed up to the summit of Temple IV. They were startled to see Bak Gwangsu sitting there, free from harm. He sat as quietly as a corpse. When they realized he had no intention of attacking them, they prodded his body with their military boots. Bak Gwangsu held out both hands and stood up like a tumbling doll in an attempt to not fall over, and he smiled brightly. The soldiers smiled too, and then aimed at his head and pulled their triggers. His body fell into the shrine. The soldiers searched the dead man’s clothing. In his chest pocket they discovered an old and faded certificate that looked as if it might rip at the slightest touch. On this document, Chinese characters reading “Born on Wi Island, Jeolla province, 28 years old, Bak Gwangsu,” and the official seal of the Korean Empire glimmered faintly. Yet there was no one who could decipher these characters.
A dozen of the mercenaries barely succeeded in escaping from Tikal. They first made their way to Mérida, then scattered throughout Mexico.
Jo Jangyun and Kim Seokcheol returned to Mérida and reported the results of the Korean expedition to Guatemala. They claimed that the Mayans had deceived them. Jo Jangyun remained in Mérida and resumed serving as the leader of the Koreans. Kim Seokcheol participated in the excavation and restoration of Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá, near Cancún.
Gwon Yongjun stayed in the San Francisco area and became an opium addict. After his money ran out, he was reduced to working as a day laborer. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was mistaken for a Japanese and arrested. He died of lung cancer in an internment camp.
Don Carlos Menem lost much of his fortune, including his henequen hacienda, during the turmoil of the revolution. He ran for governor of the Yucatán several times, but lost to Governor Salvador Alvarado. In his final years he entered a local monastery and donated what little remained of his estate to the Church.
In Mérida, Yi Jongdo heard that a massive anti-Japanese demonstration had taken place in Korea shortly after Gojong died, in 1919. Erroneously believing that the Japanese would leave and the dynasty would be restored, Yi Jongdo refused to sleep and gave himself over to writing a memorial to the throne, hoping to offer political advice to the new emperor. Before completing his work, he suffered a fatal stroke. Upon his death, Yi Jinu burned all of his father’s belongings.
Yi Jinu worked as a manager and interpreter on haciendas in the Yucatán until the 1920s. He married and had two children. When the henequen trade withered, he crossed over to Cuba and earned a lot of money doing similar work on the sugar plantations there. Later he entered the clothing business. He had a large house in Havana and headed several firms, but when the Batista government fell and Castro came to power, he fled to Florida without so much as a handkerchief to his name, and died there.
The Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera was overthrown during the revolution of 1920 and fled abroad. Just before that, Mario, the guerrilla leader, was killed in the jungle by a bullet from another guerrilla’s gun.
In the autumn of 1917, Bak Jeonghun received a letter addressed to him from the state of Campeche. It was Ijeong’s letter, which had been sent a year earlier. At nearly the same time, Kim Jeongseon, a Baptist evangelist in Guatemala City, visited him. Kim Jeongseon told him the news of Ijeong and the others. When he left, Bak Jeonghun asked his wife to go with him down to the piers. He straddled a log bench and spoke.
“News has come. They say your friend died in Guatemala.”
Yeonsu showed no emotion when he told her this. Then Bak Jeonghun gave her the letter. When she had read it, she wept.
“So he came here.”
Bak Jeonghun nodded.
“I cut his hair and shaved him.”
Yeonsu nibbled at her fingernails. And she did not cry again. Three years later, Bak Jeonghun had a sudden heart attack while cutting hair, and he died. Yi Yeonsu began a lending business with Bak Jeonghun’s money. In only a few years she became so rich that no one in Veracruz could look down on her. She then went up to Mexico City and bought a few bars that also served as theaters and hired dancers. She grew to be a prominent figure of the amusement district, doing no work for charity, relying on no religion at all, and devoting herself only to raking in money. The police and the civil authorities tried a number of times to bring her up on charges of promoting prostitution, but they failed. She died in Mexico City at the age of seventy-five. All her property was inherited by her son, Bak Seop.
The main industry of the Yucatán Peninsula today is tourism. Millions of visitors swarm to the Mayan ruins every year. The henequen haciendas have almost all disappeared, turned into wasteland, but a few of them have been transformed into museums that welcome tourists.
Only in 1956 did research and exploration of the jungle-covered Mayan ruins of Tikal begin in earnest. The University of Pennsylvania and the Guatemalan government undertook research and restoration projects. In 1991, the Guatemalan and Spanish governments decided to restore Temple I and Temple IV, which were covered by earth and trees, to their original forms. Research teams found a few skeletons at the summits of the temples and nearby, and these were sent to museums. But no traces were unearthed of the group of mercenaries who had passed through that place, or of the small, insignificant country they had founded.
This novel began with a conversation between two passengers on a flight from Los Angeles to Seoul: a researcher on the history of Korean emigration and a Korean-American film director. The researcher had only just met the film director on that flight, yet he told him a story that was a little hard to believe. He said that at the turn of the twentieth century, more than a thousand Koreans boarded a ship, crossed the Atlantic, and arrived in Mexico, and some of them formed a small nation in the jungles of Central America. I heard this story later, from the film director. At the time I paid little attention to it, but the story stayed with me, buried in a corner of my mind. It sounded too strange to have been made up, and for this reason I suspected there might be some truth to it. Still uncertain, I went to the library to look for historical materials. I stumbled upon an article from 1916 in the
in San Francisco. This newspaper, published by Korean immigrants living in the Bay Area, reported that some of the Koreans who had been “sold” to the Mexican henequen haciendas had fought as mercenaries in the Guatemalan civil war, and that they had founded a nation in the jungle but were soon wiped out. My curiosity was piqued.
I made up my mind to write this novel and began to research the story in earnest. It was not easy. Sources were scarce, and those that I could find were vague. To add to the difficulty, as soon as the emigrants left Jemulpo, Korea was reduced to a colony of Japan. They were completely forgotten. Only a few brief newspaper articles depicted the emigrant laborers who were leaving for the unknown land of Mexico. The Koreans on the British ship
were a varied group. According to the records, discharged soldiers, members of the royal family, Catholic priests, palace eunuchs, shamans, and women and children of all ages boarded the ship. Aristocrats, commoners, even freed slaves were thrown together. Some of the passengers kept journals. Through these journals I discovered that there were two deaths and one birth during the voyage, and that when the emigrants arrived in Mexico they were scattered among various haciendas, and almost none of them succeeded in ever returning home.
In the spring of 2003, I traveled to Mérida, in the Yucatan, and began gathering information. I found a handful of descendants of the immigrants, but none of them spoke Korean. Yet they did know the word “kimchi” and ate something similar to it. I crossed the border into Guatemala and, after visiting Tikal and the surrounding area, settled in the city of Antigua to write my novel. Later, I returned to Seoul and finished the writing there.
Why did I call the novel
? Black is a color created by combining all the other colors. Similarly, everything is mixed together in this novel—religion, race, status, and gender—and what emerges is something completely different. The feudal order of Korea collapses in an instant. But there is no such thing as a black flower; it exists only in the imagination. In the same way, the place that the characters in the novel hoped to go to is a utopia that does not exist in reality. They arrive in the wrong place and live out their lives there.
While I was writing, I thought of myself as a sort of shaman. The desires of those who had left for a distant place and been completely forgotten came to me like letters in bottles cast into the sea, and I believed that the emigrants directed me to write their stories. It was only when I finally believed this that I was able to begin—and finish—the work. So it is only fitting that I dedicate
to the 1,033 people who left Jemulpo Harbor in 1905.
won Korea’s Dong-in Prize; his first novel,
I Have the Right to Destroy Myself
was highly acclaimed upon publication in the United States. He has earned a reputation as the most talented and prolific Korean writer of his generation, publishing five novels and three collections of short stories.