There a Petal Silently Falls by Ch'oe Yun (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) Columbia University Press, HK$158 In Finnegans Wake James Joyce created a dark and comic dream world that often feels like a form of insanity. His characters speak in the drunken neologisms of the madhouse as they struggle beneath the weight of Joyce's obsessions, including his fascination with the Egyptian Book of the Dead. In There a Petal Silently Falls Korean author Ch'oe Yun summons a similar atmosphere of charnel-house nightmares. The central difference between the two is Yun's work is rooted in real-life traumas and everything she writes feels like it has been punctuated with bloodstains and screams. Where Joyce had Dublinesque fantasies to fuel his resurrection tales, Yun had the recent history of South Korea. There a Petal Silently Falls is a collection of three novellas Yun began writing in 1988. The title story is set in the immediate aftermath of the Kwangju massacre. From May 18 to 21, 1980, the Korean military dictatorship under president Chun Doo-hwan used special forces to suppress a popular uprising in the city. Hundreds of civilians - the exact number has never been established - perished. First to die was Kim Gyeong-cheol, a 29-year-old deaf man who was not a participant in the protests. He was clubbed to death by soldiers when he tried to pass a military barricade. He had not heard their order to stop. There are three voices in There a Petal Silently Falls. The first is that of a teenaged girl whose mother has been bayoneted to death during the massacre. We meet her as she stumbles through a building site on the banks of a river that, like the girl, is unnamed. The second voice belongs to the workman who finds her, rapes her and is then overcome with remorse after she follows him home and camps in a corner of his ramshackle hut. The third is that of a college student who leads a group of the teenager's friends as they hunt for her, knowing only that the last time she had been seen was on the streets of Kwangju, stamping on her mother's arm as she tried to free herself from the dead woman's grip. It is this final act between mother and child that drives the girl's madness, and madness it is: Yun has such a precise feeling for the rituals of the insane that one can hear in almost every line what Shelley, in his apocalyptic Julian and Maddalo, called 'the black and dreary' asylum bell. The girl is violated dozens of times - by strangers, by the workman with whom she lives, by a deaf mute she meets on the road - and Yun uses each instance as a metaphor for Korea's oppression. Her symbol is a bird, usually employed as a mark of freedom, here turned into a weapon: 'It happened so fast,' writes Yun in the voice of the teenager. 'Right before nightfall, just as I was falling asleep, a bluebird came between my legs and entered me.' This is not the bluebird of nursery rhymes. This is a bird of prey, victimising the innocent. 'Along the river more birds entered me with their sharp beaks,' writes Yun. 'What did they want? Freedom? ... I struggled to get those birds out, but not one of them flew out, unless it was while I slept.' The teenager flees Kwangju but is not just running away. She is searching for the grave of her brother, killed in a protest before the May massacre. She spends her days walking among the burial mounds in ancestral graveyards searching for her dead sibling. Until she finds him she believes she can never escape the guilt she feels at abandoning her mother's corpse. In the meantime the workman is transformed from rapist to caretaker and, ultimately, the diarist of her despair. He buys her clothes and shoes and is rewarded with a laugh 'that he could only characterise as the colour red, a laugh that sent a lingering chill down his spine'. It has taken 20 years for There a Petal Silently Falls to be translated into English but it is still as fresh as the day it was written. With pro-democracy activists falling daily under the cosh in Zimbabwe, Myanmar and elsewhere Yun's account of post-traumatic disorder is an unforgettable reminder of the price paid by those who survive state-sponsored brutality. And, like Finnegans Wake, it is written with an exceptional awareness of how words can become like water in the hands of a maestro - even one speaking to us through translators.