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The Haunting

COMFORT WOMAN. By Nora Okja Keller . Viking: 213 pp., $21.95

March 23, 1997|MERLE RUBIN | Merle Rubin is a writer and critic who writes frequently for Book Review, the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor

The ugly story of the women and girls forced to serve as "comfort women" in the "recreation camps" designed to accommodate the sexual needs of Japanese soldiers during World War II took a long time to come to light. Women who had been victimized in this way were devalued not only in the eyes of their communities but often in their own eyes. This bitterly ironic paradigm is not limited to traditional sexist cultures. Almost everywhere, it seems, far too many victims struggle with feelings of shame and despair, while too few victimizers are troubled by guilt.

This powerful first novel by a young writer born in Korea and raised in Hawaii tells the intertwined stories of a Korean-born woman sold into the sexual slavery of the Japanese camps and of the woman's American-born daughter, who discovers the secret of her mother's harrowing past after her death.

Rebeccah Bradley, known as Beccah, grows up in Hawaii, where she enjoys a relatively normal life--or, at any rate, a life blessedly free from the shocking dislocations and acute suffering experienced by her mother, Akiko. But in some respects, Beccah's childhood is abnormal. Her mother is given to strange fits, falling into trances, dancing on tabletops and communing with invisible spirits. Beccah's father, an American Protestant missionary, died when she was 5. Five years later, while dutifully commemorating the anniversary of his demise by preparing a sacrificial offering of his favorite food (shrimp), Akiko tells her daughter that she killed him.

Beccah, however, has learned to take many of her mother's pronouncements with a grain of salt. She knows that in the eyes of her classmates at school, Akiko is the "crazy lady," and there are times when she feels powerfully alienated by her mother's outlandishness. Yet in other ways, Beccah's perceptions and emotions have been deeply colored by Akiko's confused yet potent mixture of folklore, superstitions and passionately held beliefs.

Akiko warns the little girl about Saja the Death Messenger. When the child awakens in the middle of the night screaming that Saja is after her, the mother grabs a butchered chicken, tears off her daughter's nightgown, wraps it around the chicken and throws the bloody bundle out of doors to "fool" the hungry demon.

As Beccah grows older, her mother's strange beliefs seem deluded, yet oddly plausible. There seem to be any number of bizarre unseen powers capable of threatening happiness and well-being. "Red Disaster, the way my mother explained it, was like the bacteria we learned about in health class: invisible and everywhere in the air around us; honyaek was contagious and sometimes deadly. Burning the red items from our apartment was my mother's version of washing my hands."

Akiko's weird behavior is not without redeeming financial value. The proprietress of a local eatery, having given the poor widow a job, recognizes her employee's oracular potential. She sets her up as a spiritual advisor and clients flock from miles around.

As a mother, Akiko can be fiercely protective but at other times neglectful and withdrawn. Beccah's account of growing up in this eccentric household is interwoven with chapters in which Akiko relates the appalling story of her wartime experiences as a comfort woman. As we find out what she has endured, her apparent "craziness" begins to look mild in comparison.

The youngest daughter of a poor Korean family, Akiko was born with the name Soon Hyo. Barely into her adolescence, she was orphaned and sold to raise money for her oldest sister's dowry: It was known that the Japanese were looking for pretty girls. On arriving at the recreation camp, she was still so young that they assigned her to work as a maid to the other women, cleaning their rooms and emptying their chamber pots. Before long, however, she is made to take over for one of the previous comfort women, who spoke out one night and was killed for it. The memory has been branded into her brain:

"To this day, I do not think Induk--the woman who was the Akiko before me--cracked. Most of the other women thought she did because she would not shut up. One night she talked loud and nonstop. In Korean and Japanese, she denounced the soldiers, yelling at them to stop their invasion of her country and her body. Even as they mounted her, she shouted: I am Korea, I am a woman, I am alive. I am seventeen, I had a family just like you do, I am a daughter, I am a sister. . . . Just before daybreak, they took her out of her stall and into the woods, where we couldn't hear her anymore. They brought her back skewered . . . like a pig ready for roasting. A lesson, they told the rest of us, warning us into silence. That night, it was as if a thousand frogs encircled the camp. They opened their throats for us, swallowed our tears, and cried for us. All night, it seemed, they called, Induk, Induk, Induk, so we would never forget."

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