BOOK REVIEW / My brilliant Korea: shrapnel and snow soup: 'I am the Clay' - Chaim Potok: Heinemann, 13.99 pounds - Tim Jackson is struck by Chaim Potok's unadorned and stirring story from the Korean war

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'DURING the last retreat, when the Chinese and the army of the North swept down into the South, an old man and his wife fled from their village in the hills and embarked upon a panicky trek along the main road to Seoul and at one point scrambled with other refugees into a roadside ditch to avoid an approaching column of American tanks and jeeps. There they came upon the boy.'

This is the opening paragraph of Chaim Potok's new novel, I am the Clay. On first reading, the opening sentence is strikingly inelegant: 64 words long, with two subordinate clauses, three main verbs and no particular rhythm or structural beauty. It seems a bizarre way for such an accomplished writer to begin a story.

Yet its purpose becomes clear almost immediately. The sentence's job is to rush the reader through the preliminaries so that Potok's story can begin straight away. Those 64 hurried words indicate where and when the opening action of the story takes place. They introduce two of the three main characters of the book, and explain how they got there. Then, in the succinct second sentence, we learn of the single event from which the next 208 pages will flow.

The novel that follows is an extraordinarily moving but sparse tale of love, spirituality, nature, death and war. It chronicles the journey of refugees from country villages in the Korea of the early 1950s, driven from their farm in the mountains to the capital, then to the sea coast, and then back to the capital before they return home.

Pulling a wooden-wheeled cart by hand, sleeping rough in muddy fields in the middle of the peninsula's famously harsh winters, the refugees are ill, wounded, and exhausted. Their days are consumed by the hunt for brushwood to burn, and fish, dogs and rodents to add some scrap of nourishment to the soup they are forced to brew from melted snow and grass.

Against this gritty background appears an 11-year-old boy, badly wounded: a piece of shrapnel protrudes from his chest, and he drifts in and out of consciousness as he lies in the snow.

It is the old man who encounters him first, and he does so in a horrifying way: the old man is lying in a ditch, and a clammy and chill hand falls on his face. He thinks it has been severed from a corpse by an exploding shell. Only a moment later does he realise that the hand is still attached to a live being.

Embittered and made desperate by the war, the old man is ready to let the boy die. But the sight of the child in the ditch, defenceless and visibly weakening, prompts the man's wife to try to save him. When the battlefield doctors refuse to treat his feverish young body, she shames them into action by pulling the piece of metal from his bleeding chest with her bare hands.

The boy stirs painful recollections of the old couple's own past: a dead child; the husband's anger at his wife's failure to do the duty of a Korean woman in bearing him sons. The old man thinks he should have married again - instead of which he is sharing his scanty ration of rice with an unknown boy from a faraway village. His resentment increases as the boy recovers and his wife's love for the interloper grows.

Meanwhile, the old woman grows indifferent to her husband. Hiding in a damp cave, with wild dogs baying outside and nothing to eat, she tells the boy matter-of-factly that her husband will die. He has dysentery; she is starving and exhausted; and the boy is once again fainting from his shrapnel wound.

Yet gradually the old man comes to see that the boy is resourceful: he catches fish for them, finds gloves to protect their hands from the cold, and astonishes them after their return home by providing money with which they can buy a new ox to plough their rice-fields. Believing that the boy has supernatural powers, the old man becomes reconciled to him; by the end it is he, not his wife, who has become dependent.

This apparently unremarkable story is told in language of simplicity and grandeur. As if to emphasise the anonymity that is the plight of refugees, only the boy is named; the others are referred to simply as the old man, the old woman, the carpenter, the cook, the girl, another teenage boy. The struggle between the three main characters of the book is not recounted through dialogue - with the cart to push and food to find, they are too tired to talk - but through streams of their thoughts. Sometimes, the thoughts of one character run into those of another without warning.

Yet in a frame that bears so little varnish that it feels at times more like a novella than a full-scale novel, Potok manages to convey powerfully the hard, beautiful 'morning calm' of the Korean mountain landscape, and of the paved capital of Seoul. There is no sub-plot: everything - from the animals and trees to the spirits that inhabit them and the ancestors that watch over everything - is seen through the eyes of these unadorned country people.

As their life stories unfold, the reader learns more about the strict hierarchy of Korean society, in which the subservient position of women in 1950 was hardly changed from that of the Middle Ages. Another social tension surfaces, too, in the gulf between the boy and his protectors. They realise from a glance at his silk-lined coat that this can be no mere farmer's son; only later do they discover that he comes from a distinguished family of scholars and poets.

Inevitably, the war in Korea left foreigners in a highly ambiguous position. On the one hand they were considered lower than untouchables, for they failed to understand the nuances of local custom and manners. On the other, American troops were the saviours of the capitalist regime of South Korea, having driven back the invading North Koreans and Chinese.

In the confusion after the armistice, the American troops thus appear both kind and devilish to the characters in the novel. One thing is clear: they were little understood by the Koreans. When the United States Army chaplain is kind, the boy thinks: 'Odd how this chaplain did not have a cross on his collar but a kind of arching double tablet.' To us, however, this is not odd. The double tablet is the symbol of a Jewish chaplain; and the Jewish chaplain in question is the author himself, who has written before about his experiences in Korea.

To readers of Potok's other novels, I am the Clay will seem a strange departure. His speciality hitherto has been to unshroud the rich spirituality, and the powerful emotional traumas, of the closed community of Hasidic Jews in New York. The Koreans were Buddhists of a kind; one can see how much of an intellectual shock to Potok their attribution of spiritual power to rocks, rivers and dead ancestors must have been. But this book manages to convey the dignity of their beliefs while at the same time showing why they are so hard for outsiders to understand.

Potok is also very good at writing about aspects of Korea that others would be tempted to sensationalise or condemn: for instance, the Koreans' long-standing taste for dog meat, and their idea that the meat is best tenderised by beating, which raised a storm in the British tabloids a few years ago when a South Korean president visited London. At one point, the old man snares and kills a dog for food. Yet all we hear are his terse, telegraphic, exhausted thoughts: 'The thump and crunch of wood and bone. Not enough time to soften the flesh. Not enough time to prepare it properly. Winter a bad season to eat dog.'

What gives this novel its greatest power, however, is the skill with which Potok evokes the horror that modern war imposes on those who are forced to flee their homes. Over the winter, television screens have been full of pictures of Bosnians on buses, their noses pressed to the glass of the windows. It may concern a different war, a different time and a different place, but I am the Clay cannot fail to raise thoughts of Yugoslavia. This is one of the most convincing recent portrayals of war, and worth reading on that score alone.

(Photograph omitted)