The final piece cobbled from my article in 10 Magazine Korea, these books/stories are all famous and/or written by major Korean authors. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily make them good reads for English-language readers.
Comments, as always, welcome.
Heartless (무정 1917) by Yi Kwang-su
Could have been more usefully titled “Endless.” This work is known as the first “modern” Korean novel, but today it doesn’t read as very modern at all, including its rather traditional ending. Add to this the fact that it is an unfocused and rambling soap-opera and it hasn’t aged very well.
Aunt Suni (순니 삼촌 1978) by Hyeon Ki-young
Mix an unhealthy does of insanity and fratricidal violence with a translation that reads as if it were done on a Ouija board by three epileptic illiterates and this is what you get. Aunt Suni is a difficult story, rendered impossible by its translation.
Between Heaven and Earth (천지간 1996) by Yun Dae-nyong
Insubstantial whipped together with unintelligible creates a story lighter than cotton candy in outer-space. Even worse, the plot is also insubstantial froth. Give this one a wide berth, despite the fact it was printed under the normally reliable Jimoondang/KLTL imprint.
A Man (사나이) by Hwang Soo-won
One decent story sited in Jeje (“Bibari”) cannot overcome the horrific and inexplicable sexual politics of the title story, nor the meandering pointlessness of of “The Dogs of Crossover Village” (which, honestly, has a title that promises something).
Buckwheat Season (매밀꽃 필 무롑 1936) by Yi Hyo-sok
This is not a bad story, actually it can be quite affecting. But without the Korean context required to appreciate it, it comes across as a shaggy dog story without a dog. The central plot element is as obvious as the trunk on an elephant’s face, and the bucolic-romantic nature of the story depends partly on historical knowledge of Korea’s southwest region. Also, this story has been translated endlessly, and every person who buys a copy today, threatens us with the possibility of a further translation in the future. ^^