Potok's simple methods make story of three Korean refugees believable

May 31, 1992|By Anne Whitehouse

I AM THE CLAY.

Chaim Potok.

Knopf.

211 pages. $20. In his eighth work of fiction, Chaim Potok has departed from the New York Jewish milieu of his acclaimed novels such as "The Chosen," My Name Is Asher Lev" and "Davita's Harp" to depict Korean refugees -- an aged couple and a young boy -- during the Korean War.

On the first page of the novel, the husband and wife, who have piled their few belongings in a cart and fled their peasant village before the invading Army of the North, take refuge in a ditch during an air attack. In the ditch they find a young boy, wounded in the chest and unconscious. Despite the protests of her husband, the woman insists on taking the boy with them.

The couple's tragedy is that they are childless, and while the boy's presence fulfills a maternal need in the woman, he provokes resentment in the old man. The narrative describes the couple's arduous trek through the mountains to the plain in the midst of a freezing winter, their struggles to survive, and their struggles over the boy. Each hovers near death -- first the boy, then the old woman, then the old man -- but all recover. The couple remain nameless, but as the boy gradually regains his health, they learn that he is called Kim Sin Gyu and that he is the 11-year-old son of a scholar and poet. His family has been killed; he alone escaped.

The novel is written close to the bone, in an unadorned prose that is convincing in its focus on the immediate physical reality of the refugees. In one memorable scene, the small group, weak and ailing, has taken refuge in a mountain cave. For the moment, the war seems far away. As the woman watches, a stray dog enters the cave and licks the boy's suppurating wound, cleansing it of infection. At last it begins to heal.

Because of events like this and because of the boy's prowess at catching fish, the couple, who are simple and superstitious, become convinced that the boy possesses magical powers that will protect them and enable them to survive.

All along, the old woman has cared for the boy like a son. Now the old man feels the first stirrings of love for him, albeit it is a self-interested love.

Although this novel marks an abrupt departure from Mr. Potok's previous subjects, it bears a resemblance to his other fiction in its affecting portrayal of an awakening adolescent. At first the boy, orphaned and severely injured, is afraid of being abandoned. Aware that the old man dislikes and distrusts him, he is shy, polite, eager to be of help. As the novel progresses, the boy gradually develops as a character, until at the end the story belongs to him.

When the army retreats, the refugees retrace their route and return to the village. They discover that it has inexplicably survived, a miracle which they attribute to the boy's powers. Swayed by dreams of his own parents, the boy travels to his old home, only to find it destroyed, and then returns to the old couple. He becomes their major provider, obtaining work as a week's helper and then as a house cleaner at the nearby American compound.

Under the U.S. occupation, the traditional ways of life are changing. While the old man and woman still plow and plant their fields as they always have, the boy is plunged into an unfamiliar environment. Used unwittingly as an informant by an older teen-aged boy who steals from the American soldiers, he feels abandoned by the spirits of his ancestors, his powers evaporated. Ultimately he must leave for the city to make a new life for himself.

Mr. Potok has written a moving and believable book set in an alien culture. He succeeds because he has kept the narrative and the characters simple, and because he neither exaggerates the exotic elements of his story nor domesticates them. He vividly depicts his refugees in flight and their subsequent efforts to re-establish their lives, and he feelingly portrays their alternations between hope and despair.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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