By Chung Ah-young
Celebrated author Gong Ji-young
has released a new novel, "Silenced"
whose title was taken from Arthur Miller's eponymous play, based on the real events leading up to "witch trials" in the small puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.
Her new novel, which was first posted on Daum, the Internet portal site, from the end of last year for six months, also deals with an actual incident that happened at Gwangju Inhwa School, a special school for deaf and dumb students, in which educational workers, including the school principal, continuously sexually abused their disabled students in 2005.
Set in Mujin, a fictional historical city where progressive and conservative values are in conflict, the book revolves around a school for deaf children who fall prey to collective sexual violence.
The city frequently blanketed with fog is portrayed as a region that was once the Mecca of the democracy movement, but is now stricken with reckless nightlife and corruption.
Kang In-ho, a teacher, moves into the city after landing a job at the school with the help of his wife's friend, leaving his family ― his wife and daughter ― behind in Seoul.
He meets Seo Yu-jin, his university senior now living in Mujin, who helps him settle down and adapt himself to the new environment.
On his first day at the new school, he encounters a weird and doubtful accident in which a boy from the school is killed in a train accident, and hears about a girl who jumps off a cliff to her death nearby the school.
The principal, a son of the founder, asks him to give money in return for giving him a job under the name of the "school development fund", and Kang has to accept this demand because he doesn't have a job after quitting teaching several years ago and failing in business.
Silenced Gong Ji-young
; Changbi Publishers; 296 pp., 10,000 won
The principal is an influential figure respected by the community and seems to be a devout Christian with a solid network of various kinds of people. The school is funded with around 4 billion won every year from the educational authorities for its specialty in educating handicapped children.
However, before long Kang feels there is something nasty and wrong at the school, and suddenly realizes what is going on there.
He finds out that students in his classroom ― both girls and boys ―have been sexually assaulted and abused by the principal, an administrative head and a dormitory superintendent.
Kang and Seo, who works at the human rights center in the community center, decide to divulge the incidents to the public. But their efforts to bring about justice end in disaster as the regional community and the established power moguls try to conceal the facts.
Police are swayed by the influential figures in the community; a doctor testifies in their favor; a lawyer attacks Kang's past wrongdoings in which he was a member of a teacher's union and had an affair with a former pupil who later committed suicide. Worse, most of the victims' parents agree to cover up the case in exchange for money because they are poor.
In the end, the three accused are sentenced to probation and are set free to return to the school.
Meanwhile, Kang stands at a crossroads in which his individual conscience is tarnished by the social tyranny represented by a power-centered hegemony and his desire to keep his family safe while salvaging his reputation from past misdemeanors.
Although they don't win the trial, they decide to continue to fight. But Kang whose past misfortunes were disclosed during the trial sees them spread through the Internet and loses his willingness to fight against social evil. One night, Kang leaves the city out of frustration.
The novel is also an interesting parallel with Miller's play in that Kang, comparable to John Proctor, wanted to keep his distance from the incident. At first, Kang doesn't want to have a part of it regardless of whether it's good or bad. But when his students are harassed and abused by the school authorities, he is forced to play his part.
Through the trial, Kang's affair with his former student is revealed just as Proctor confessed his affair with Abigail and tries to cleanse himself of his sins in the play.
The author displays the struggles within each of our own hearts through the male protagonist and at the same time, she shows when something wrong happens, people don't want to be involved.
There is also another theme about the frantic hysteria of the mob represented by the school authorities, the religious community, and also the residents. Christians are described as those who blindly advocate on behalf of their colleagues (the accused) and even manipulate and distort the truth to the citizens.
The author apparently blames complex and comprehensive social ills on those who have power and money, and trample on the less fortunate.
The author said that at first, she tried to deal with double-faced and invisible violence in this backward small city but as she kept writing, she felt as if the whole nation became Mujin.
One of the noteworthy factors in the novel is Gong's portrayal of a male protagonist who gives up his fight for justice and returns to Seoul, and Seo, his colleague who understands him.
The 45-year-old writer was a student activist in the 1980s and noted that if she wrote the novel at a younger age, she might have portrayed him as a betrayer, but she embraced Kang as a tortured human being.
"Now I think that such a layman is part of the character of people who make history together in our society", she said. "Power without a rein is violence. Paying attention to this silent cartel is the last hope of our society", she added.
To write the novel, she visited the school more than 10 times and interviewed the relevant people, including victims.
She recalled the moment when she was strongly motivated to write the case into a fictional story. She was struck by a phrase in a newspaper article, saying "At the moment when the ruling was handed down on the accused, the court room was filled with screams and cries of the students with hearing disabilities".
Gong was a best-selling author in the 1990s through her candid and sensible writing style in such novels as "Go It Alone Like the Rhinoceros Horn", and "Mackerel".
Silenced Gong Ji-young
; Changbi Publishers; 296 pp., 10,000 won