Silent Marionette


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A Story of a Comfort Lady
By Nily Naiman & Brian SW Kim

ISBN: 978-1-84991-247-1
Published: 2010
Pages: 335


This is the story of Pil-nyo, a Korean girl forced to serve the Japanese army as a comfort woman during World War II.

In a remote village in Korea that is under Japanese occupation a group of Japanese soldiers attacks the villagers. They brutally rape and kill Pil-nyo’s mother and older sister, shoot her father, and burn her two little sisters alive. Fourteen-year-old Pil-nyo is forced to perform fellatio an officer. She loses her ability to speak from the trauma of what she has seen and experienced.

She manages to escape to the woods where she hides for a couple of days, but confused, desolate, and still in shock, she lets the Japanese soldiers find her and take her with them. Young Pil-nyo is sent on a train to Manchuria , where she is stationed as a comfort lady.

The Japanese established many comfort stations to serve their soldiers throughout the Pacific nations that they conquered. The official reasons given by the leadership were to protect the soldiers from venereal diseases and to prevent them from committing rapes. The Japanese kidnapped some 200,000 girls throughout the Pacific nations and forced them to serve in comfort stations and brothels.

Soldiers would line up at the comfort stations from early morning until late at night to take their turns with the girls. Officers were permitted to stay the night with them. The comfort girls were brutally tortured and beaten by the soldiers. Food and medicine were in short supply and inadequate to sustain the girls. They had to wash the condoms after each encounter with a soldier and use them many times before discarding them. The girls sometimes had to service 60-70 men a day.

Pil-nyo starts working right after undergoing sterilization surgery. Cycles of bitterness and anger eventually give way to complete apathy in response to what she is going through. Her friend Kumikko manages to leave the brothel and moves to the medical officer’s room. She gives Pil-nyo papers and pencils and encourages her to draw.

From here on her life begins to change. Pil-nyo discovers her talent as an artist and she finds a safety valve for her soul. In the brothel her guards do not see her anymore as just another marionette, just another sex toy; she is now an artist. They come to her cell to be sketched, as do the Japanese soldiers and officers. The mute Korean artist becomes somewhat of a celebrity.

After Kumikko decides to put an end to her life, a Filipino girl arrives at the brothel. Nina is an interesting, sophisticated, controversial young woman. She is one of the highlights of the story. Nina is a direct opposite of Pil-nyo, but the connection that is formed between them through Pil-nyo’s art and silence is stronger than anything words could have accomplished. Pil-nyo becomes Nina’s only trusted ally and only witness to Nina’s tragedy.

The story deals mercilessly with rape, humiliation, lust, confusion, hunger, pain, torture and abuse. Pil-nyo’s silence in this book is the loudest of all sounds; it screams and cries out for individual recognition. Pil-nyo journeys from despair to confidence and awareness of her worth through her art, her Buddhism, and her memories. The terrible atmosphere, the hunger and the screaming in the brothel, are part of the daily routine; and the only way for Pil-nyo to keep her sanity is to draw and sink deeper into her muteness.

When the Russians finally enter Manchuria and free her, she gets together with Liu-fang, a Chinese girl who was serving with her as a comfort woman in the brothel. The girls decide to seek a new life by attempting to travel to Hong Kong together with Haru, a Japanese officer who has deserted from his army.

The passage to Hong Kong becomes a voyage of self-discovery and self-examination for all three of them. The people they meet on the way, the sights of postwar China that they encounter, and their thoughts and emotions are all part of a surprising, tragic series of events.

The Japanese government has never apologized or offered compensation to the surviving comfort women or their families. This book is only one of many calls to the Japanese government to do so.

About the Author

Nily Naiman was born in Israel in 1953 and grew up in that country. On the background of the many conflicts within the Jewish community, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, she has been seeking to portray the common, fundamental elements of humanity, good and evil, war and peace, love and hate, and trauma.
Her novels are fascinating journeys of women and their families searching for identity while enduring desperate and painful times. The women in her books are larger than life, and their stories are all based on true events and on the life of the author. Naiman deals with emotional problems which have scarred these women very deeply.

A common theme in her books is the phenomenon of post-traumatic silence. She herself was raped at the age of twelve and forced to do ugly things to a relative. After that horrifying experience she could not speak for two years. In that time and place no one thought about psychologists or psychiatrists. No one knew what to do with her. Only the events of the Six-Day War, the running to bomb shelters, the men being called to fight and die, somehow shocked her into slowly beginning to speak again.

Culture and personal history aside, these are women who have the ability to cope and the strength that makes it possible to face their problems and their pain. Naiman intertwines tragedy with irony and romance in an impressive way. All the women in her books are on the verge of destruction and disaster. The situations of despair, embarrassment, and pain that she creates have a deep emotional quality. The heroines of her novels seem to bear the weight of the entire world on their shoulders as they struggle to preserve whatever human dignity they have.

In addition to Silent Marionette, Naiman has published four other books: Ahuva (Beloved) is a powerful story of the tragic love between an Arab boy and a Jewish girl in Israel. Mongolia is a sweeping family saga covering two generations and four continents. Tambourine is a novel of the “Parrajmos”, the Gypsy Holocaust, in France. Songs and Poems for Andres is a book of poems related to Tambourine.

Book Extract

This sweaty pig can tear me apart, beat my lights out, stab me to death, but I am in my village and I am safe with my Yong-soo. He is off me at last; I am quiet, he zips up his trousers and coughs as if he is uncomfortable. I pull my dress down. My head is still lowered. I hardly ever see the faces of my rapists; they all look the same to me anyway.

He stops for a second at the door, and I know he is looking back at me, as if he wants to say something. However, there is a long line by my door, a long line of hungry beasts. There is no time for personal conversations. Did he want to tell me about his wife, or maybe he had something to say about his daughter who might be my age?

It does not really matter. The next one is already zipping down his pants. My head is down; I have no interest in looking up. “Yoko nishinasai!” (Lie down!) He commands me.

This one sounds young and eager. With luck, he will skip the torture and leave me fast. He drops on my body and, as I thought, he is inside me in an instant, breathing into my face. “Anatano me wo hirake nasai, baishunfu!” (Open your eyes whore!) He yells, and I open my eyes. He is as young as I thought, and his sweat is dripping on my breast.

His teeth are stained with tobacco, and he has thin lips. I know that those with thin lips are usually the most dangerous ones. With time, I learn how to define the rapists’ nature by their facial features. I do not feel him inside me; he cannot even get a full erection. The red flags are rising in my mind, but then the cycle turns from bad luck to good luck.

Somebody knocks on the door. “Get out, soldier, we are under attack!” The young man stops his aimless digging in my body and gets up. I sigh in relief; there will not be any work for a while.

We are simple people, we are. We live simple lives in a simple village among very simple-minded neighbors. Our birthright and destiny is work, hard work. We are each born with a strong pair of hands, a strong pair of shoulders and a strong will to survive. We inherit a tradition of persistence and resiliency; it takes an awful lot to break us. We live by the cycle of the seasons. We know when to plow the earth, how to nourish it and renew it. In return, it gives us food to put on the table.


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