First, I should say that Ko Un is a deserving candidate and would have been a deserving winner for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, even though his odds did decline from as high a 6/1 last year to 33/1 this year according to Ladbrokes betting site. Ko has built a massive ouevre on simple poetry that expresses the recent history of Korea in the most simple, but zen-literary fashion imaginable. Alas, this year the award went to Patrick Modiano (not alas to Mr. Modiano, whose accomplishments are manifest), who no doubt deserved it.
Ko has a chance to win both because of his excellent work and because he fits the profile of a Nobel Literature winner. Statistics indicate being old, prolific, male, and a a political rebel are all good things, and Ko is those in spades. He is also, by all accounts, a fun guy and awesome reciter of his own work. In addition, Korea has not really won a major prize since Kyoung-Sook Shin became the first winner of the Man Asia Literary Prize becoming, at once, the first Korean and first woman to win that prize. So, one feels an award might be due.
And yet —-
While I rooted for Ko as a strong representative of Korean literature, I also feared his victory in some ways. Anyone who has visited Korea knows of the ‘palli-palli’ culture in which speed and immediate effect are prized over ongoing work and the results of that work.
One could never accuse Ko of such a tendency, in fact Ko works in another way entirely In artistic terms I almost think of him as a return to an older kind of poetry – a more simple and direct form of writing. When one thinks of the Koryo Kasa or the Sijo you think of a simple topic simply, although sometimes unexpectedly, addressed. Korean modern poetry, in many ways, has become very wordy and confused. Ko Un does not fall prey to that. This tendency also helps him in translation, as readers do not have to struggle through difficult language, avant-garde techniques, or have specific knowledge as to historical or political events to which he is referring. As to a reflection of the society he lives in? He is a mirror of that society, and a mirror of that society across time. Maninbo will always be his great proof of that – he attempts the nearly impossible; to entirely reflect society as he knows it. Ko is a working man’s poet, and will always be
But if Ko had won, I fear that Korea might have reacted in a ‘pallli-palli’ fashion, declaring that Korean literature had won the “gold” and that therefore the mission was accomplished; Close LTI Korea despite its amazing achievements over the last few years, stop funding translation in general, and move on to the next international ‘competition.’ And yet literature is NOT like that. Literature needs to be supported across time. If Hallyu is a wave, then literature is the much more important absorption (for which I do not know the Korean word). Waves of silly songs, trendy dramas, and (surprisingly) good movies crash across western culture, and then recede, to be forgotten the next year.
Literature, unlike the other aspects of Hallyu lives on in bookstores, libraries, and schools, influencing generation after generation. Long after PSY is forgotten, Yi Munyol will be remembered. If Tolstoy’s War and Peace had been a popular roundelay of the time, none of us would know it today. But the book? It lives on forever and continues to affect culture in multiple languages.
That Ko did not win the award puts him on an awesome list. What do James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, Henrik Ibsen, Mark Twain,Leo Tolstoy and Internet scribe Dan Disney all have in common?
No Nobel Prize.
So, congratulations to the ‘loser’ Ko Un, and let us hope that he, and all the other writers in Korea, continue to write for the reasons that they write, to express themselves and Korean culture. At the same time let us hope they do NOT write to win awards.
There will be, I hope, another year for Ko Un, Hwang Sok-Yong, Yi Munyol, or eventually even Kyoung-Sook Shin or Kim Young-ha (perhaps the young but powerfully talented Park Min-gyu). But for the moment, let Korean authors take this “loss” as a victory; a call to continue writing until their weight, literary nature, universal themes and sheer writing skills have created a (translated) national oeuvre that is so undeniable that it must eventually win a Nobel Prize for Literature.
That day will come, and Ko Un’s “loss” will then be seen as a victory.
Gentlepeople of Korean authordome, start your word-processors (or pens, for you older folks)!